Connacht's French-born Kerryman destined for the top
Promising young second-row tipped for stardom after superb start to senior career
How many professional rugby players can say that their first three caps were all won in inter-pro derbies? But after a debut against Leinster, a first start in Belfast against Ulster and a Sportsground bow against his native Munster, Ultan Dillane has that honour after a Christmas to remember.
Ever since the Tralee man rolled into the Sportsground three years ago as a first year academy player, he has caught the eye. Standing at 6ft 6ins and almost 17 stone, the dreadlocked second-row stood out.
But more than anything it's a smile as wide as Galway Bay and his affable nature that separates him from the pack.
Injuries to Mick Kearney and Quinn Roux over the Christmas period meant Dillane was called up to the bench for the trip to the RDS. Some excellent performances for Nigel Carolan's Connacht Eagles showed Pat Lam that he was ready for the step up in class, but doing so was a dream come true, he says.
"It has been a very good Christmas. It takes some getting used to but hopefully I can stay involved now. It has been great," he says.
"My family is over the moon. They were up supporting me last week against Munster, my mam was nearly in tears watching me, so it was brilliant for all of us.
"Before the Leinster game Mick had a bit of an injury so I knew I was going to be on the bench. I was very nervous, especially with the team they planned to put out."
News that the No 4 shirt was his for the trip to the Kingspan Stadium came a little closer to kick-off when Roux failed a late fitness test. It was short notice, but Dillane had filled in for the South African all week in training so he was ready.
"There was shock, but excitement too, all these different emotions came to me. Once we stepped out in the starting jersey and the crowd around us. I just couldn't help but smile," recalls the 21-year-old.
"But the Munster game was huge for me. I admire so many of their players: Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan. When I saw them on the pitch I was quite over-whelmed with emotion. It was unbelievable.
"When I came on, my first involvement was at a scrum. I looked across at my opposing lock, it was O'Connell. I just thought 'give him the best tackle possible if he runs at me'. Just out of respect for him, to show him what I had."
Dillane is a product of Tralee RFC, but a guy so suited to the rough and tumble of rugby nearly didn't take up the game at all.
After trying his hand at everything from Gaelic football, soccer, swimming, tennis, Taekwon-Do and athletics - he was an accomplished shotputter - a ¤5 bribe from his mother, Ellen, finally got him to give rugby a go.
"I played quite a few sports before playing rugby initially. I was trying to find which sport was for me. Then when I was 13 my mam bribed myself and my brother Cian a fiver to go down to the local club to try out rugby for one day.
"We were really shy at the time, but that helped hugely and I never looked back from that. After the first training session we were like: 'this is the sport and club for us'.
"Tralee RFC is a brilliant club and everyone is so nice down there. Our old manager even came up to the Munster game the last day. It was great to see him there."
He was raised in Tralee, but Dillane was born in Paris. His dad is from the Ivory Coast and he spent the first seven years of his life in the French capital.
The family then moved back to Ellen's home county of Kerry, but Dillane's French is as fluent as ever. And he put those talents to great use against France when playing for Irish underage sides.
"I suppose I am a bit French because I was born in Paris and lived there for seven years. We have had our French cousins come over here a lot of the time so luckily I held onto my French language," he says.
"It helped when we played against France at the Youths and U-19s level. It was a big help in the lineouts and allowed me to rob one or two and understand their calls."
In the last year of an academy contract, Dillane looks certain to be handed a full-time professional deal before too long. His rise into the first team has surprised no one in Connacht - he has already gained a huge reputation as a destructive force on the training pitch - but given the serious injuries he has overcome in the last 12 months, his progress is remarkable.
This time last year, Dillane was recovering from a broken leg, and during the summer a shoulder problem threatened to derail his career. It was a worrying time.
"It is hard to realise how lucky I have been coming back from injury. I had a bad shoulder last year and I had surgery on it over the summer. That didn't quite go as planned and they ended up removing tissue and shaving part of my AC off," he explains.
"Waking up from surgery the surgeons were cautiously optimistic that I would come back playing.
If not I would require another surgery which is eight months out. Potentially, there would be no more rugby for me but to come back playing in October, playing the best rugby I have done ever, is unreal.
"It is hard to cope with all the change of late, but really I can't be any happier. Everyone has been so sound, the seniors made it really easy for me and I said it to them last week in the meeting. I just couldn't thank them enough.