Sky the limit for Connacht 'monster' Ultan Dillane
Published 17/05/2016 | 02:30
Over the course of this season, England's Maro Itoje has been redrawing the boundaries about what can be achieved by a second-row in his breakout season.
At 22, Ultan Dillane is older than the Saracens lock who was crowned European player of the year last weekend, yet Itoje has long been marked out as a star of the future while Connacht's lock was barely mapped before Christmas.
Now, he is already being talked about as a potential Lion of the future; a role the England sensation has long been tipped for.
Itoje is a remarkable figure who has captained England to a Junior World Cup and has already been a driving force in winning a Grand Slam and Champions Cup at 21.
Although Dillane is a different player and, by all accounts, a quieter character, he can draw comfort from the feats of another colt in this era of young, mobile and dexterous second-rows.
Against Glasgow Warriors on Saturday, the Tralee native will be a crucial figure in stemming the influence of Leone Nakarawa, the Fijian wonder who bestrode the Paris Sevens last weekend in his own inimitable style.
When the teams met in the last game of the season, Dillane was Connacht's enforcer-in-chief and he will need another big display if the province are to reach their first final in professional rugby.
He is still growing into his frame, but when he came off the bench against Itoje's England he showed his readiness to cope physically with the demands of the professional game and his captain John Muldoon admires what he's brought to the table.
"He's an absolute monster in the tackle," the Portumna man said. "He's 115kg (18st, 1lb) but he looks about 100kg (15st, 5lbs); he's a string bean. A few years ago he got the nickname Peperami because of his hair and whatever.
"He's just all angles, and there isn't a pick of fat on him. At night the nutritionist was allowing him to drink a litre of hot chocolate and six brioche buns, which is totalling about 2,000 calories and that was his bedtime snack.
"He's just very, very lean. Luckily for him he has got very good genetics. He is the type of fella that just runs into everything. He has no regard for his body, has had a few big injuries, but it doesn't seem to deter him.
"He has been absolutely fantastic for the last few months."
Dillane's route to the top began with a now-famous €5 bet with his mother Ellen who wanted him to try out with Tralee RFC after she had moved he and his brother Cian back to Ireland from Paris.
Rugby clicked and Dillane began to catch the eye of the provincial and national selectors. He chose Connacht when they offered a full Academy contract while Munster were dangling a sub-Academy effort and, having worked with the westerners' Academy supremos Nigel Carolan and Jimmy Duffy previously with Ireland, he moved to Galway.
"Jimmy was the man who spotted him years ago and saw that he had potential," Muldoon recalled.
"But ultimately it takes a while to get to where he is today. He still is very raw, there is a lot of raw material there, but even since the start of the year he is getting better every game, he is getting better and better every training session and I think that's the key.
"It takes a while to get to that level as a second-row. I think Glasgow are fortunate they have got Jonny Gray, who is wise beyond his years, but is a very good second-row as well.
"The only way Ultan is going to go is get better. He still makes a few mistakes and he still has a couple of faux pas for the want of a better word.
"Even though he is half-French is he is very much French-esque. He strolls out to training about a minute before it starts. I am constantly on his back giving out to him and making sure that he's getting better but look he has got a big talent. He has just got to keep on learning, taking Bundee (Aki) as an example, just keep on working hard at what he does.
"He has got big rewards this year but he knows himself that he has got a bit improvement to do yet.
"But certainly raw material and the way, and that physical attribute that he has. You can't make that, someone has it deep down and he has got all of that.
"There's a couple of more young fellas at Connacht that will be able to step up over the next few years and they will turn a few heads. A few have a bit of work to do like Ultan did this time last year and hopefully we will see a few more Ultan Dillanes coming out."
Pat Lam spotted Dillane's potential and slowly introduced him to the provincial game before his secret was exposed to the world during the Six Nations.
He has kept footage of the Kerryman's early days to remind him of his growth and hails the academy and strength and conditioning teams for their work in developing him into the physical specimen who will take the field on Saturday.
And he hopes that the young players coming through the Academy are looking at the likes of Dillane and learning.
"Talent only takes you so far; it's the ambition and the drive to get better, and then the programme matches that. But if you're not willing to work hard you won't make it.
"I had a session last week with eight new academy boys. Nigel and I met with them and they're all excited and want to be a part of it.
"I sat down with them and I asked them, 'What do you think?'
"They replied: 'Oh, I'm so excited, because I look at Peter Robb, Sean O'Brien and Ultan, and all these guys going up...' And then I asked them the simple question: 'How have they got there?' Because they worked hard.
"So yes you've got talent but you've got to work hard. That's what Ultan epitomises."
Itoje's rise shows that age is no barrier to influence and Connacht will hope their tyro follows his peer's lead this Saturday.