Gerry Thornley: Ultan Dillane's breaking on through
Those who saw the lock play as a youth knew his Ireland debut would be impressive
Pushing on: “Head down, slightly sidewards and gone like a hare. That was the ultimate Ultan.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
When Ultan Dillane turned 18 in November 2011, he begged his coaches at Tralee RFC for a game with their first team. The squad travelled to Waterford for a J2 Cup game and Dillane was granted his wish in the backrow. The home side had a big-tackling, burly number eight of about 18 stone. He eyed up the gangly, young lad with bushy hair opposite him.
“He must have thought he had an easy day with Ultan ahead of him,” says Tralee’s then director of rugby Jay Galvin. “He ran at Ultan with the first ball and Ultan turned him upside-down. Ultan cleaned him out that day and scored two runaway tries to win the game, easy.
“Two years later Waterford came to Tralee to play Killorglin because Killorglin’s pitch was unplayable. I met the number eight and he asked me: ‘Where’s that big, tall, curly-haired fella that was playing against us two years ago?’
“I said: “I’ve bad news for you. He’s transferred to Killorglin’.”
“He said: ‘I’m not playing. I’ve never met anybody who hit me as hard in all my life’. ‘Have no worries,’ I said, ‘he’s gone to off to the Connacht academy. You’ll hear more of him’.”
Unlikely journeyDylan HartleyDan Cole
Dillane emulated fellow Kerrymen Mick and Tom Doyle, Moss Keane, Donal and Dick Spring and Mick Galwey in representing Ireland; he was also followed by two Tralee members of the Irish women’s team, Ciara Griffin and Zoe Grattage, who played their English counterparts at the same venue.
Encountering people who featured in Dillane’s unlikely journey from Paris to Tralee via Galway to the Irish team and the same facets continually shine through. No one has a bad word for him. They talk about his humble, grounded and good-humoured personality. Here is a product of the club game, a tall, immensely talented athlete who strives for self-improvement, all the while growing into his body and the game. It has only ever seemed a matter of when rather than if.
The origins of Dillane’s circuitous route are already becoming the stuff of folklore. Speaking to TG4 earlier this season, Dillane briefly outlined his background and the famed story of how his mother’s €5 bribe first introduced him to the game.
“I was born and raised in Paris, until I was seven when we moved to Kerry and Tralee. Initially taking up rugby, we [he and his older brother Cian] were a bit shy. A neighbour of ours asked us to play with Tralee and my mom decided to bribe myself and my brother with a fiver to go down. And yeah, it was brilliant. The best fiver she ever spent, I think,” he said with his trademark smile.
Dillane was 11 when he pitched up at Tralee RFC. “He had tried a couple of other sports like basketball and a bit of Gaelic, and he didn’t really take to it,” says Galvin, who first met the Dillanes with then club youth officer Richard White and brought them into the club.
“He was quite unco-ordinated, for want of a better word. He had a very long frame and he took a bit of time to get used to catching the ball and that, but within no time we realised the potential in him. He had that pace and looked for the space. He stood out in every sense.”
Dillane’s mother Ellen, who was in Twickenham with Cian on Saturday, is still central to her boys’ rugby careers, augmenting her own nursing in the Bon Secours Hospital in Tralee with other jobs.
“She’s a super mom,” says Galvin. “She travelled the highways and the byways with him in his younger days, to training and to games, to Munster games and Irish trials, and everything else.
Impossible to stop
Dillane’s team generally won all before them through under-12s, -14s, -16s and -18s, by which stage he had broken into the Munster Youths team. A major influence on Dillane’s development was Eddie Barnes, father of ex-Munster player Danny. Barnes was Tralee’s inder-19 and J1 coach, as well as a community rugby officer with Munster Rugby in the Tralee area. He’s now a development manager in Dumfries with the Scottish Rugby Union.
“I was brought into the club because when they changed to under-19 level the under-18s basically fell apart,” Barnes tells The Irish Times, “and I remember our first training session at that level, Ultan was the only one who turned up.
“So I put down objectives for the year and myself and Ultan worked one-on-one, and over the months one became two, two became three, and four and six and eight and by the end of the year we’d developed a team of 17 boys.
“He is so enthusiastic and has such a love for the game, really receptive to listening and learning, and I suppose to top it off he was just a fabulous individual. What’s happening to him now couldn’t be happening to a better individual.”
Jimmy Duffy, now Connacht forwards coach, has witnessed Dillane’s continuing upward graph for the last four seasons. Back in the 2010-11 season, when assistant coach to the Irish Youths (clubs) Under-18 team, head coach Greg Lynch asked Duffy to run the rule over a Youths’ ‘interpro’ between Connacht and Munster, with whom Dillane was playing, in Dooradoyle.
“That was the first time I saw him play, and I immediately thought, ‘Wow, who is this kid?’ He was tall and gangly at the time, but had a burst of energy constantly through the game. He had a lot to learn but the way he threw himself about the field was something impressive.
“He was about 6ft 5ins at the time and I spoke to Greg after the game and said ‘Look, we need to get this kid up to Dublin and have a look at him. Needless to say he made the squad that year.”
The Irish Youths won away to France for the first time in Quimper. “Ultan scored a try in the corner. It was something similar to his break with Ireland last week but more to the left. It was a two-on-two and he backed himself, fended off a guy and scored in the corner. He had a couple of lineout steals as well.”
Dillane played in the Irish under-19s the following season, at the end of which Munster offered him a sub-academy contract. Duffy and Nigel Carolan had been keeping a close eye on him and offered Dillane a place in their full academy and, along with his brother Cian, places in NUIG while also putting them in to Corinthians. “Personally, I was like, ‘Happy days’,” says Duffy, who was then the elite player development officer alongside Carolan, the Connacht Academy director.
“We had maybe 12 or 13 academy players. The seniors had quite a number of injuries. We were playing against a side pushing for promotion from the Championship and were coached by Andy Robinson, but by far the stand-out player on the field that day was Ultan.
“Caleb Blade was our scrumhalf that day and he made a break up the far side into their 22 before being tackled and a couple of Bristol players tried to come through. Ultan came in and cleared out the first player so hard he knocked him into another player who collided into a third. One became two became three with one clear-out, and when we scored in the corner those three Bristol bodies were still on the floor. We knew we’d lose him soon enough to the senior set-up.”
Dillane’s arrival was also a boon for Corinthians, who won promotion from Division 2A of the Ulster Bank League at the end of the 2012-13 season to Division 1B, where they remained for two seasons.
Pat Cunningham, the coach there, recalls: “When he first turned up he was so skinny I was kind of looking for the rest of him to be honest but immediately he started training and playing I knew there was something slightly different about this guy. He had a hard edge and was running over more muscle-bound guys.”
When he was 19, Corinthians faced an end-of-season promotion decider away to UCC. “We brought down three buses of supporters and he was outstanding that day,” says Cunningham. “He suffered a broken nose and hurt his shoulder badly in the last minute. He just gave everything.”
Despite going back down to 2A, Dillane again rebuffed other clubs to remain with Corinthians, with whom he has played twice this season. “That’s the mark of him. He’s nearly an ambassador for the club now,” says Cunningham.
It’s hard to believe now that bulking up was a priority for Dillane.
“Ultan always had a bit more to do in terms of his physical development. That’s something he would initially have struggled with: his [lack of] weight,” says Duffy. “He’s 6ft 6in and 115 kilos, but he’s only going to get better and stronger.”
In Connacht’s deserved first win at Thomond Park in 29 years last November, their pack featured Dillane, loose-head Denis Buckley, flanker James Connolly, number eight Eoghan Masterson and replacement prop Finlay Bealham. Two seasons previously they had all been in the Corinthians pack for the home wins over Shannon and Blackrock in Division 1B.
“Ultan’s all-round physicality was massive. Brive as well, away, he made a big hit on the fullback when he had made a line break.”
Indeed, it was like seeing someone hit by a bus, and his hits are such that for a while Connacht team-mates were calling him the bone collector.
Dillane’s lineout work and calling have also improved. Bearing in mind Dillane’s potential to become a serious lineout operator, Duffy says: “With his ability and his athleticism, at that height, Ireland isn’t blessed with numerous numbers of those players. So when you get one, it’s a case of happy days.”
Happy days indeed.