'Seeing how well James Ryan is doing gives me big motivation'
Sligo lock Gallagher looks to make mark again after putting latest injury setback behind him
It's never easy to find positives in the aftermath of a European exit, especially at home in the knockout phase. But there is still a bright future for Connacht, and there are young players who will look to make a name for themselves next season.
Leinster lock James Ryan was awesome in this year's Six Nations when he burst on to the scene and helped Ireland to a Grand Slam at Twickenham.
But just two years ago Ryan was lining out in the second-row of an Ireland U-20 side alongside a Connacht man. Cillian Gallagher scored a try and registered eight appearances in his first year at that age group.
Injury meant that he couldn't be part of the closing rounds of the U-20 World Championships in Manchester, where Ireland eventually succumbed to a 45-21 defeat to England in the final at the AJ Bell Stadium.
Injury also stunted his progress for Ireland last season when he only played twice at U-20 level. But Gallagher knows he has the experience to follow in the footsteps of his former team-mates.
"It was great coming from Summerhill in Sligo, where it wouldn't exactly be acknowledged as a rugby school, to go and play for Ireland underage," said Gallagher.
"That was a big thing for me and a good confidence booster really. It allowed to me to compare myself to other guys in the country who I wouldn't have come up against, Leinster, Munster and Ulster guys, who I wouldn't have seen when I was playing club rugby.
"I played two years at U-20. I played my first when in the sub-academy here. Started all of the Six Nations games that year. Then I played in Manchester, the year they got to the final.
"I played alongside James Ryan there, and Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Porter and the rest of those guys.
"James was obviously doing really well at that stage compared to the rest of us. But I suppose I was a year younger than him when I played with him.
"I always saw it as, when I went on to play my second year that I could get to the levels that he played in his year.
"Unfortunately, I got an injury and got a bit side-tracked with it. Seeing what he is doing is a big driving factor for me. It gave me the confidence that I can do it myself."
But the Sligo native needs to concentrate at matters closer to home and he is thrilled to have featured for Connacht this season.
The 20-year-old, who can play lock and back-row, made his Connacht debut against Worcester Warriors in the Sportsground in October.
Gallagher also made a first start in the Challenge Cup, in Connacht's trip to Brive, but he had to deal with a few niggling injuries which prevented a great impact in the Connacht jersey.
"I had my second shoulder surgery in the space of about a year and a half. I was only cleared to play from last September so really just came in then," said Gallagher.
"It has been great experience to get integrated with the senior team. I have had a few niggles in the last few weeks which unfortunately kept me out of the South Africa trip.
"But I am back to full fitness now and I hope to get more of a look-in before the end of the season."
Gallagher only started to play rugby when he was 13 at Sligo RFC. He had been a keen soccer player and Gaelic footballer up to then.
He picked up basketball in school and went on to represent Ireland at underage level there too.
"The hand-eye coordination and the ball skills gave me a bit of an advantage over other people in my position after I played basketball. Definitely that's a big advantage for me," said Gallagher.
"You tend to find a lot of basketball players in the second-row. Maybe it was the height that drew them to it. But a lot of the lads have said that they have dabbled in basketball over the years.
"It definitely helps in terms of lineout catches and hand-eye co-ordination. It really transfers over well."
Gallagher continued to play every sport but when he got to Leaving Cert he starred for Summerhill College as they reached their first Connacht Schools Senior Cup final.
They lost 19-18 against Garbally College but subsequent provincial and international honours ensured that rugby was his chosen field.
"I was kind of mixed between other sports up to that stage anyway. But once I played for Connacht U-18 in my Leaving Cert year and then was brought into the Ireland Schools team I thought I had a good shot at keeping rugby up," said Gallagher.
"I trained as best as I could that year and then was called into the Connacht sub-academy at the end of that year. From then I have been pushing onwards. I put my all into it to see how it would go. It has gone well so far. Hopefully it will continue."
Gallagher was handed his first professional contract with Connacht on March 9, when he signed on the same day that fellow Sligo RFC and former Summerhill student Conan O'Donnell also did.
Both players will move from the academy to the senior set-up next season, and Gallagher believes it was great to come through with his childhood friends.
"I went to school with Conan O'Donnell and Stephen Kerins, and a few others came through together," said Gallagher.
"We knew each other from other sports as well. In Sligo all of the lads who would have played rugby together would have been good friends outside of rugby.
"It is a lot more enjoyable like that and it helped to keep us playing at that stage."
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