Sport Rugby

Monday 14 October 2019

David Kelly: 'Dillane priming himself to peak when the time is right'

Ultan Dillane knows what he has to do to force his way back into Joe Schmidt’s World Cup plans. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Ultan Dillane knows what he has to do to force his way back into Joe Schmidt’s World Cup plans. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

On a clear day atop Table Mountain you can almost see beyond forever.

From Cape Town's looming precipice, one can take in the Lion's Head and the Devil's Peak, Robben Island and Clifton Bay.

Profound landmarks of history and geography combine to at once make you appear quite insignificant but at the same time invest you with a sense of self at a moment in time.

Ultan Dillane had never scaled its height on his two previous visits to South Africa but on Connacht's recent trek there, he decided to do so.

A moment to reflect on where he had come from and the road still to be travelled.

"You take the last cable car up," he illustrates, "and it's perfectly timed for sunset. There's a lovely hour-long walk to the summit.

"The views are absolutely stunning. The sun is setting over the ocean and it's pretty nice. There are some serious views."

Anyone who climbs a mountain must, at some stage, descend. Two years ago, it seemed as if Dillane scaled a personal pinnacle of sporting achievement.

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Winning a Guinness PRO14 title with Connacht. Debuting for Ireland. Touring South Africa when an Irish team won there for the first time. The definitive peak, arguably, saw him featuring in Ireland's historic victory against the All Blacks.

It seemed he had arrived, even if by such a circuitous route, from Paris to Galway, via Tralee. But he knows now too well nothing in any life is certain. And that goes for sport, too.

After winning six caps in eight months, he has won just five in the two years since; his last cap - his second start - was against Fiji in 2017.

He was in Joe Schmidt's squad when they commenced their Grand Slam assault last February but a family bereavement sadly interrupted his campaign, during which other rivals, particularly James Ryan, were stealing the show.

A shoulder injury then ruled out any possibility of a recall for the summer tour to Australia; by this time Tadhg Beirne's repatriation was consummated and the Irish forward stocks were suddenly bulging with names other than his.

Suddenly, the way back seems to be a very difficult climb, indeed. Dillane is not minded to fret. He will not be awed by the ascent, just as he didn't gnaw at his downturn.

"I'm probably my worst critic," smiles the 24-year-old, fresh from the training paddock on a broody Galway day beneath gathering gloom. So he should know what he needs to do then?

"Improve my defence. Quality of my carries, I want to be more consistent with my good carries."

Everyone has boxes they need to tick before they can turn the page.

He says he wants to be an 80-minute player but then who doesn't? Except it's not as if he feels he's been tailing off at the end of games; for some reason, he's had it the other way around. Saving himself for an ending that might never arrive.

"I've even noticed in the last few weeks my first-half rate of effort has dipped," he explains. "I've tried upping that because I know you always get the dip but it's how you react to it.

"You've loads of energy in the first half and if you can get through that you'll always be able to find more in the second half. But I think it's the long phases of play in the first half which can tend to tire you out if you let them.

"So that's where I've noticed I'm not where I want to be during some phases. I'm thinking that if I put too much effort in here, I'll lose out later on. But that's wrong.

"So it's about applying everything I have in every moment."

A more settled club environment has helped; few will even say it publicly now but since Pat Lam announced his intentions two years ago, Connacht steered the ship onto some rocks.

"With Andy Friend, it's completely different from Pat and Kieran," he says, referring latterly to Kieran Keane, Lam's successor.

"Each coach had different ways of doing things. Andy has a lot of trust in the players and we feel that from him. It can only benefit us, it's a good thing and the wins bear that out."

They are on a four-match winning streak which may not exactly be screaming headlines but for the squad it is inking fundamental bottom lines in terms of performance.

After Perpignan in the second of the back-to-back European Challenge Cup fixtures, the interprovincial series thereafter will, perhaps, offer a wider public the chance to become reacquainted with his renowned talents.

Schmidt has remained in touch throughout the past year which has meant much to him, as well as being a helpful reminder about the futility of fretting about the bigger picture.

Having just trained alongside Quinn Roux, the motivation to concentrate on his club form is obvious.

"Listen, it was close between me and Quinn Roux in recent times, there's so much competition," he says. "I felt my performances dipped at the start of the season, and then, what was for me a rare soft tissue injury, probably cost me.

"All I can do is my best, if not I know I still have to do stuff that I need to do.

"Joe told me he was happy with me but he also just said other players have more money in the bank and are going better at the moment."

And so Dillane will continue to try to get better at the moment. It might seem like a mountainous task to many but he will always have a head-start.

After all, he does know the way.

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