Seven years since making his competitive Connacht debut aged 21, Ultan Dillane has announced he is leaving the western province.
There is speculation that the Irish second-row is returning to France where he was born, possibly to link with Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle.
After spending his entire adult playing career with Connacht, few will criticise his decision to move on, which he says was “the hardest I’ve ever made, but ultimately I feel that the time has come for me to experience a new challenge in my career”.
The Top 14 would be a natural choice for the native French speaker, who was born in Paris before moving to Tralee as a seven-year-old. A decade later, having missed out on a Munster academy contract, he was invited to join Connacht where he linked with his under-21 Ireland coach and Connacht academy boss Nigel Carolan.
On the field he quickly established himself as a thoughtful, yet abrasive second row player, strong with ball in hand. And since making his debut against Leinster in December 2014, Dillane has made 122 Connacht appearances - playing his 100th game against Zebre last November.
Impressive displays for Connacht during’s Pat Lam tenure ensured he caught the eye of Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, making his international debut against England in 2016, during which time he was a key player in the western province’s victory over Leinster in the Pro12-winning season.
But his international time has not been so consistent, 19 appearances from 2016 to 2021 - his last against Japan in the 39-31 win. After eight appearances for Ireland in 2016, and two more in 2017, he was not in the reckoning in 2018 - a difficult year for Dillane, whose mother Ellen passed away.
It was not until the following year he returned to the Ireland frame, making impressive off-the-bench contributions alongside his Connacht teammate Quinn Roux. It was that pairing which proved dynamic for Connacht - Dillane strengths on the field complemented by Roux’s scrummaging and ruck prowess.
Off the pitch, Dillane has made a huge contribution in Galway, particularly through his cherished charity work for the Galway and Tralee hospices over many years. He was instrumental in forging an official charity partnership between Connacht and the Galway charity.
Dillane says the west of Ireland will always be a “special place”.
“I will be giving absolutely everything to finish my time in Connacht on a high, and help all of us to have a really successful season. This is a team on the up and I’ll forever be a Connacht rugby supporter.
“I am grateful to all the coaches and wider staff at Connacht I’ve worked with these past 10 years. You have all helped make my dream of becoming a professional and international rugby player a reality.
“I’ve also been fortunate to play alongside some incredible players both for Connacht and Ireland, and I have made some friends for life.
“The Connacht supporters are among the best in the world and I’d like to thank them for all the support they’ve given me too.”
Connacht senior coach Pete Wilkins described Dillane, who made his announcement to the squad on Tuesday morning, as a “brilliant human being, who is so respected and well liked.”
“He’s been here a long time and contributed an enormous amount, so everyone will be disappointed to see him go, but equally we are really proud of what he has achieved and grateful for what he has put into the place.
“He is a senior player, an international, and he adds immense value in terms of abrasiveness and application in attack and defence, while also up-skilling some of the locks coming through.”
Wilkins says Connacht are respectful of the opportunity Dillane has been given - an “opportunity too good to turn down”.
“He leaves with a heavy heart, but in many ways if someone has to leave, that is the scenario you’d like.”
Dillane made his announcement to the Connacht squad on Tuesday morning ahead of preparations for the St Stephen’s Day meeting with Ulster in Belfast. Friend’s side are looking for a second successive win over Ulster since their 36-11 at the Aviva. Tom Farrell is available after long term injury, but will continue to be monitored, along with Mack Hansen and Jordan Duggan.