Ultan Dillane was launching Heineken's 'Love Rivalry' campaign. ©INPHO
Irish Abroad

'The chat from the locals is like, 'No pressure, but you have to do it again!''

Ultan Dillane is enjoying the challenge of playing in the back row and chasing trophies with La Rochelle.

IT’S 19 DEGREES in La Rochelle, so only a taster of the heat that summer brings. But Ultan Dillane is already having to adjust. He’s a long way from the wind and rain of Galway.

“The Irish in me is feeling every bit of it,” says Dillane, though he welcomes the lovely weather.

It’s one of the perks of his move to France last summer to join Stade Rochelais, having played his entire professional career up to that point with Connacht. It was a big decision, ruling him out of Ireland contention at the age of 29, but Dillane couldn’t refuse the offer Ronan O’Gara extended.

With the club now preparing for Sunday’s Champions Cup semi-final against Exeter and sitting second in the Top 14, Dillane is delighted with how things have worked out so far.

The Paris native had the French language, but there was still a settling-in period involved. Like many of the players, he lives in the suburbs of La Rochelle, a beautiful city on the west coast, and it’s starting to feel a little like home as things go well on the pitch.

“It’s new ground for me now being in this semi-final,” says Dillane. “There’s still so many games left for us, this is exactly what I wanted since signing.

“We’re finally getting to that time so all is to play for. The squad is feeling great, it’s a pretty cool feeling.”

As anyone who watched La Rochelle’s two recent Champions Cup wins over Gloucester and Saracens will have noted, Dillane has been playing in the back row for La Rochelle. With Connacht and Ireland, he played nearly all of his rugby in the second row.

“Personally, it took quite a bit of adjustment because of the positional change but thankfully we have found our feet,” says Dillane of playing in the number six shirt, where the majority of his 14 starts have come.

“I’m still not at my best, I don’t think, but getting closer to it and I’m definitely enjoying it.

“After I signed and they had a look at their squad, who they had coming through in the back row, and it was more to be ready to slot in there for a couple of games because they had players going up to the national camp. I had to fill in that slot and luckily it has worked out.”

One interesting aspect of Dillane’s role in the back row is how he hangs out in the 15-metre channels, maintaining width in the La Rochelle attack and using his dynamism with a little more space.

ultan-dillane-celebrates-after-the-game Dillane has enjoyed playing in the back row. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

It has been extremely similar to his old role in Connacht’s attack when they swept to the Pro12 title in 2016, with Dillane operating as one of the wide forwards in the westerners’ 2-4-2 shape.

“That’s what’s made it cool for me, I’m back in that area, that slot waiting to get the ball to run at backs,” he says enthusiastically.

“It’s a bit of a blast from the past. It demands a bit more high-speed running and it takes a bit to adjust to that fitness-wise. Any position is fun once you have a handle on it.”

Among the attractions for Dillane in La Rochelle’s offer last year was the chance to work with forwards coach Donnacha Ryan, who he know from Ireland camps when the latter was still playing.

As soon as Dillane moved over, Ryan showed him where he could buy Barry’s Tea in La Rochelle and he has had a big influence on his rugby too.

“He’s still the same person,” says Dillane of Ryan. “Yes, there’s more of a player-coach relationship but all the lads say the same thing – he’s just the soundest fella going. He’s such an approachable guy, wants to help, wants you to develop.

“The door is always open with him and he has such great knowledge of how to run a lineout, how that all operates. He’d be quite similar to Paul O’Connell breakdown-wise, they’re like-minded in a way so he’s a key figure in the squad.”

And head coach O’Gara has pretty much lived up to Dillane’s expectations.

“I expected a real intensity and he hasn’t disappointed but it’s done for the right reasons, to get the right reactions out of players. He knows what to say at the right times.

“He is intense and people might have different experiences of it but it’s definitely for the right reasons. He really understands players and the lads love him.”

ronan-ogara-and-donnacha-ryan ROG and Ryan run the show in La Rochelle. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Dillane has loved playing in front of La Rochelle’s incredibly passionate supporters. The Stade Marcel Deflandre has sold out 79 times in a row and the atmosphere is always raucous.

There were remarkable scenes around the port in La Rochelle last year after O’Gara’s side won the Champions Cup for the first time, with an estimated 35,000+ supporters – half the population – turning out to welcome them home. And they’re keen for more silverware.

“They’ve got that history now of having done it once,” says Dillane. “The chat from the locals and the fans is like, ‘No pressure, but you have to do it again!’

“We can’t look too far ahead, we have a massive challenge in Exeter and that’s all we can think of, but it would be phenomenal. That’s what the locals want and they deserve it. It’s still all relatively new for them because they haven’t been at this stage for too long.”

Dillane has a great grá for Connacht. He played for the province 126 times, won that Pro 12 title, and obviously still has so many of his friends playing there. He could play against another former Connacht man this weekend in Exeter centre Sean O’Brien.

Dillane looks for Connact’s results, watches when he can, and visited the Sportsground while on a trip home just after Christmas.

“It was cool to see them carrying on like clockwork. Naturally, a bit sad but it’s so good to see the boys doing so well.”

He has watched Ireland’s continued progress under Andy Farrell with admiration too. Dillane won the most recent of his Test caps in 2021 and wasn’t picked by Ireland again after confirming his move to La Rochelle on a two-year contract.

He knew that would be the case.

“It was all decided before signing here,” he says. “Once you’re gone, that’s it, there’s not much I can do for that. You talk to the national coaches and you make that informed decision.

“It’s been great to see how they’re going. They’re doing so well, everyone here is so impressed with their quality. As happy as I am for them to win, it’s naturally going to feel bittersweet – ‘There’s a chance I could have been part of that if I had stayed at home’ but you can’t dwell on that too much.

“My goal here is to try and win as much silverware as I can. We’re in a good position in both tournaments at the moment so all I can think of is what’s in my control. Hopefully, the guys keep going well and it will be great to see how they do in the World Cup.”

Ultan Dillane and Sean O’Brien have collaborated with the Heineken® ’Love Rivalry’ campaign which encourages sports fans, and non-sports fans alike, to enjoy some friendly rivalry this Spring as Dublin gets set to host the Heineken® Champions Cup Final in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, May 20th.
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