"This is after happening. You're playing" - Diarmuid Kilgallen and the Saturday night phone call
"You don't really know what to say!"
The end of the season is drawing near and Diarmuid Kilgallen is already looking forward to 2022/23.
We are sitting upstairs at Connacht Rugby ahead of their season-closer against Zebre and Cian Prendergast has just headed out to get on with his day. The flanker, who will soon get his first full Ireland call-up, is in line to face the Italians, but Kilgallen must bide his time until the pre-season, and the stretch of high stakes rugby that roll out after that.
He played six times for Connacht, over the course of the season, and scored his first senior tries but he was hampered before the United Rugby Championship and Champions Cup even got going.
"There was a big enough injury in our second game of the pre-season, here, against London Irish," he tells us. "I tore my labrum and did the AC [joint] in my left shoulder.
"That just hung around, then. I'm still doing rehab on my shoulder, and it was August that I picked up that injury. There were times when that would have put me back for a couple of weeks, over the course of the season. It was frustrating, how it lingered, but we're kind of over it now."
The 22-year-old is still in single figures for senior Connacht outings, but he has shown enough in those matches for those at the club to be as excited for next season as the winger is himself. He has seen, at close quarters, how a string of big performances and great scores can propel a player into national contention. Mack Hansen arrived in Galway last summer and, this summer, is now in New Zealand with the Ireland squad.
For Kilgallen, his sole 2022/23 goal is an absolute stack of Connacht appearances. He wants to big the next Eadestown rugby player on the big stage.
"There's a few boys knocking around"
Eadestown is not far from Naas, and nearer still to Punchestown. It has a local GAA club but, of late, has a happy knack of producing rugby professionals.
"It's a very small village," says Diarmuid Kilgallen. "There's a school and a church, and that's about it. There's not even a shop.
"But it's funny, in the radius of about a kilometre, there's Jimmy O'Brien, who is a neighbour, Tadhg Beirne and myself. We're all very close. And there's Rowan Osborne, who is not too far away. There's a few boys knocking around the rugby scene. We all would have played for Naas RFC as minis."
While Osborne (Leinster and Munster) looked promising until concussion brought a premature curtain down on his career, Beirne is an established Ireland star and a British & Irish Lion. O'Brien is set for his first game(s) in an Ireland jersey, down in New Zealand this summer.
"I was always out in the backs," Kilgallen recalls. "Bring O'Driscoll would have been my idol... when I was younger, I would have looked at Isa Nacewa a lot, and Rob Kearney too. They were the lads you really aspired to be. Even at Connacht, you were looking at guys when they won the PRO12, like Matt Healy and Niyi Adeolokun."
"I have a vivid enough memory of the 2009 Grand Slam, and the drop goal. I was nine, then. That sticks out in my head, watching it with my family."
Brought up in a family of six by Geraldine and Morgan - "the two most important people in my life" - Kilgallen was sports crazy from an early age.
"The Community Games would have been a big part of my life, as a young lad. Rounders, running, football, hurling and all sorts. I would have tried my hand at anything... Ran the 100 and 200 metres and relays. We had a good quartet, at my age, in Eadestown."
If Naas gave Kilgallen a first taste of rugby, it was Cistercian College in Roscrea that saw him immersed in it. His mother grew up not far from the school and Kilgallen's older brothers headed off there first before he, when he reached 12, followed along.
Schools Cup partnership with a future Ulster lock
Located on the Offaly side of the border with Tipperary, Cistercian College Roscrea compete for Junior and Senior Schools Cup in the Leinster section. The school, to date, has one Junior and one Senior Cup title, and reached eight more finals.
"You're always looking at the Senior Cup," says Kilgallen. "You see it on TV, and all the craic that goes with it. It's a big part of the students' life there."
He did not make the Junior Cup team in second year, but was part of the squad when he was in third year. For Senior Cup, he was in the fringes when he was in Transition Year, got a taste for it in fifth year and played a more prominent role in his final year at Roscrea.
"I played a bit of fullback but all my Senior Cup rugby was in the centre. "When I was in fifth year, Cormac Izuchukwu, who is up at Ulster now and playing lock, was with me in the centre."
With Diarmuid's older brother, Sean in the team, Cistercian won the school's first ever Senior Cup in 2015. They reached the final, the following year but lost out to Belvedere College. Diarmuid's big crack at schools cup glory ended in the quarter final stages. He still chews over not being able to keep up that cup momentum for his school.
Around this team, though, the young back was finally getting some provincial attention. He had not been called in for the Leinster 16, 17s or 18s and had one U19s trial with them after Schools Cup but nothing came of it. His chance would come at Connacht.
"I was lucky enough to get picked for the U19s here, at Connacht," Diarmuid Kilgallen recalls.
"Cullie Tucker was doing a review with one of the other lads and he asked who I was. I was lucky enough that, from that, I was able to get my foot in the door. I had 19s trials, 19s inter-pros, in the summer of fifth year, going into sixth year. That's where you have to lay your marker down.
"From there, I was lucky enough to get a spot in 'The Hothouse', the year after sixth year. That's a sub academy trial, essentially, and it goes from there... They bring in the lads that are a bit ahead, in the 18s, 19s and the sub academy lads, and they house them here in Galway. They train them with the full academy lads, and see how they get on. It's great exposure."
The move to Galway did not faze the young Kilgallen, he says, as he had been away from home since he was 12. He had a couple of years in 'The Hothouse' then got an academy contract for 2019/20. He was also called into the Ireland U20s squad, but the Covid pandemic and a niggly injury saw him miss Ireland's three games before the tournament was wrapped early.
One part of the academy, sub and full, that he loved at Connacht was how often he got to be around the senior squad. "I was integrated with senior squad for 90% of my academy time," he says. "It was great exposure.
"At the start, it's like, 'Look who I'm training with'. But you have to park that and push on. I had that mindset early on. It could be very easy to have the idea that you made it, once you get into that senior environment, but I never saw it that way."
Covid saw training routines sent out to the players and regular contact over Zoom, but he was raring to get out playing again. By this stage, he was living with another four Connacht lads in Knocknacarra, west of the city and just out past Pearse Stadium. Once the squad was permitted to get back in, training, he was mixing with the senior squad again.
"The likes of Jack Carty, Tiernan O'Halloran and Bundee Aki," he says, when asked who was the best for giving him advice, and a listening ear. "They are all happy to get around you and ease you in. Everyone, really. They're telling you to be yourself. After that, it's all about trying to make you a better player."
He would need all that support and advice when it finally came time to play. When his debut chance arrived, it came upon him quicker than expected and courtesy of an Andy Friend phone call.
"This is what's after happening. You're playing"
"It was a funny one," says Kilgallen of his senior Connacht debut, against Munster, at an Aviva Stadium with less than 150 people in that big stadium.
Covid restrictions meant it was just the two playing squads, limited coaching and backroom teams and other essential workers at the game. I was covering the game at the stadium, that evening, and still found someone who told me, 'Watch this Kilgallen lad'.
"I wasn't actually down to play, but was due to travel as a reserve. Matt Healy, then, pulled out the day before. That evening, I got the phone call and was told I was going to go in on the wing... It was a pretty brief call from Andy Friend - 'This is what's after happening. You're playing. Enjoy the opportunity, and take it, too'. You don't really know what to say!"
With being travelling reserve, Kilgallen had been training with the team all week, and knew what was required of him. The bus journey up from Galway to Dublin was all about 'trying to enjoy the moments, along the way, and take it all in'.
His debut, and a try-scoring appearance in a big win over Ulster, at the Aviva Stadium this season, are two of his biggest highlights, to date.
"He is up and away, Kilgallen and he's gone!!"
21-year-old @connachtrugby flyer Diarmuid Kilgallen got the killer score against Ulster with this superb intercept
🎥 @PremierSportsTV pic.twitter.com/nJAydiuUjO
— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) October 26, 2021
"The support out there would blow you away"
Not long after that statement-maker against Ulster, Greg O'Shea was raving about Diarmuid Kilgallen on House of Rugby. He said:
"He came into the Sevens squad for a few weeks and his scores are off the charts - his jumping, his speed. He's one of the best athletes, if not THE best athlete I've ever seen in the last while.
"He's definitely up-and-coming, and I can see him doing this more often, every week, even, if he gets the game-time."
That shoulder injury, and the difficulty of getting it cleared up, meant Kilgallen's next run-out was not until six weeks later, in the Champions Cup against Stade Francais. He ran in a try in that match, too. That, so far, is the third in his growing list of personal highlights.
"I played a couple of times in Europe, this season, and they were huge moments for me. I was saying to my parents that now that the season is coming to a close, I'm going to take that experience with me and run."
Already with both eyes firmly focused on next season, he says, "The main thing is to play as much rugby as I can. That is the goal, from the outset - to really put my hand up for selection.
"I've had a couple of nights out there, at night in a packed out Sportsground. It's unreal. There's nothing I can really compare it to, right now. That capacity may only be 8,000, but the support out there would blow you away."
And though he may be away from his parents and family for long stretches, as he first decompresses and then rips into another pre-season, he knows they are always at the other end of a phone call.
"My parents are huge in my life," he comments. "I bounce a lot off them and they are always combining their years to tell me how much experience they have, so I have to listen! They're great. I'd go to them with anything."