Ultan Dillane a champion again after more than fulfilling his promise to 'mam'
"Even while working nights, every second week. She put a lot of work in."
Six years ago, I was fortunate enough to get time to sit and talk with Ultan Dillane in a wind-swept hospitality tent, just beside the Connacht training pitch.
Born in Paris but raised in Tralee from the age of seven, Dillane spoke about how pivotal his mother, Ellen was in him becoming a rugby player. In him forging a path to be proud of.
"Unfortunately, we had a passing in our family and my mam just felt she wanted to be closer to home," he recalled. "So that brought me, my brother and her back to Kerry."
"I don't know if every player gets moments [of doubt]. I definitely did.
"I had just turned 18, was finished the Under 19 season with Munster and was coming back from a hand injury. I didn't play that well and had a poor season with Munster 19s. I got dropped to the Munster B's... we won our interpros but I still felt, because I had been dropped from the main group, 'Oh that's that now'."
Not for the first time, it was Dillane's mother that steadied the ship. Even if life as a professional rugby player was not to be, she told him, he could still play for fun. It could still be that outlet.
"I remember her driving me from all these trials, from Tralee to Cork and to Limerick, once or twice a week in the summer. Even while working nights, every second week. She put a lot of work in."
It did not work out with Munster but Nigel Carolan felt Dillane had potential and got him into the Connacht academy. The big man grasped his opportunity and was making his senior debut within a year. Two years after that and he was bursting through Dylan Hartley for a line break on his Test debut against England.
There is a lovely mother and son moment in a Vodafone video with the Dillanes, from 2016, when Ellen says, "Realistically, we didn't expect him to get the call [for the Six Nations]." Sitting opposite her, Ultan fires back, "Thanks mum!" before they both laugh.
That same year, 2016, Dillane and Connacht won the Guinness PRO12 at Murrayfield Stadium when they defeated Leinster. INPHO photographer James Crombie captured an image of Dillane and his 'mam' celebrating that win together. He was still only 23 and had the rugby world right where he wanted it. Six months later he was part of an Ireland team that defeated the All Blacks for the first time ever.
A promise made to Ellen
We jump ahead to 2021 and Ultan Dillane is back in the mix with Ireland, having missed out on World Cup selection when Joe Schmidt was still in charge.
Andy Farrell believes Dillane can be a key squad member as he prepares for the 2023 World Cup, but possibly not as a starter. Dillane's 19th Ireland Test appearance comes against Japan and is a rare start in a routine home win. He is unlikely to play for Ireland again, though.
Life in Galway is grand but Dillane fancies a challenge elsewhere, and some extra salary [nothing wild] would be nice, too. Most importantly, he remembers a promise he made to his mother.
"I made a promise to mam that I would one day return to France and play for a club there. It is something we talked about and something she would have loved for me to do."
The promise is something that has rattled around within him since February 2018 when Ellen Dillane passed away. It was a sudden passing and it left her two boys, Ultan and Cian, reeling. The lock had been in line to play for Ireland against Italy in the 2018 Six Nations. Instead, at 25, he was saying goodbye to the constant and revered in his life.
"I had a conversation with Andy [Farrell], before I made my decision," he told me. "I knew I would most likely be walking away from Ireland but this was something I wanted to do."
Dillane had decent French, from his formative years in Paris and through his family connections. Still, he felt his conversational skills were 'schoolboy level' when he first arrived in the town of La Rochelle, on the West Coast of France.
In 2016, at Soldier Field, he had replaced Donnacha Ryan during that win over the All Blacks. Ryan would now be his forwards coach, at Stade Rochelais, while Ronan O'Gara was the top dog. "He's a great guy and very interested in the person behind the player," said Dillane of O'Gara.
During his first weeks in La Rochelle, club captain Gregory Alldritt reached out and invited him out to a couple of dinners, and some drinks, with his friends. It was Alldritt's way of welcoming the Irishman to the fold. Dillane brought his Playstation with him to the club's Apivia Parc training facilities and bonded with other teammates over games of Fifa. When he longed for home, a friend would not be long arriving over with some cans of Guinness, bags of crisps or some bacon.
'Put it up to them'
When Ronan O'Gara called the Top 14 a '10 month slog', after beating Exeter in the Champions Cup semi-final, Ultan Dillane would have wholeheartedly agreed.
Now out of the picture with Ireland as they beat all comers and won a Grand Slam, Dillane was back with Stade Rochelais busting the record for games played in a season. He has already played 29 times and that could be 31 if the club reach the Top 14 final.
Dillane has been used as a lock and a flanker this season and done wonders in both roles. He was excellent in that semi victory over Exeter. For the final, against Leinster, he dropped to the bench. Modern rugby is such that replacements need to be of high stock in these tiny margin, big cheese games. Eddie Jones calls his subs 'finishers' while O'Gara calls them his 'difference-makers'.
The 29-year-old came on, alongside Quentin Lespiaucq Brettes, as part of that third wave of fresh bench bodies, with 15 minutes to go. La Rochelle were relentlessly pounding on Leinster and penning them in their own half. It was savage but Leinster were clinging on.
The dam broke, eventually, though as 21-stone Georges Henri Colombe - with half the pack latched on - pummelled over for what would prove, when Antoine Halstoy's conversion sailed over, be the go-ahead score. Leinster found it within themselves to rediscover that offence switch and they went close, themselves, to retrieving that winning position on for a red card clear-out to dash their dreams.
Ultan Dillane was a Champions Cup winner and he once again had the rugby world where he wanted it.
"I knew we could achieve greatness," Dillane told RTÉ Radio after the pulsating La Rochelle win.
"We knew once we scored twice in the first half that there was a chink in their armour. We knew there was a chance, and that's all we needed going into the locker room at half-time. All that was really said was to tidy up our breakdown, and put it up to them physically."
In the early hours of Sunday morning, Dillane and his teammates flew out of Dublin and back to La Rochelle, with the Champions Cup trophy for company.
Ultan Dillane knew he was giving up a lot by leaving his home to return to the country of his birth. He knew it would be tough and, like before, like always, there would be moments of doubt.
But he remembered that promise and knew he was doing it for the best reasons.
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