Rory Keane reports from Cape Town
AN INCREDIBLE YEAR just keeps getting better for Ultan Dillane.
A campaign that began with Corinthians in Division 2A of the Ulster Bank League led to a breakthrough season with Connacht and Pro12 glory against Leinster at Murrayfield.
The France-born lock using Dave Kearney as a speed bump was one of the standout moments on a historic day for Pat Lam’s side.
Three caps for Ireland, including an eye-catching late cameo against England at Twickenham, also came his way and now the Kerryman is gearing up for a three-Test series against the Springboks in South Africa. Some year indeed.
Surrounded by a huge gathering of South African journalists, and a few Irish who made the pilgrimage, all looked well with Dillane ahead of Saturday’s clash at Newlands.
Joe Schmidt’s squad trained earlier in the day in the picturesque surroundings of Westerford High School, with the iconic Table Mountain providing a stunning backdrop.
“Ah yeah, the heat is something to get used to but the views up there where we were training today was unbelievable. We all had the phones out afterwards taking pictures,” says Dillane.
“It’s a gorgeous place. We’re going to get up Table Mountain and I think we’re going to get out in a helicopter tomorrow and go shark diving so we’re all excited about that.”
Cage diving with great white sharks might well prove the perfect preparation for the white-hot cauldron that is Newlands.
“It’s exciting more than daunting. It’s our first time over here in 12 years so we’re looking forward to a big challenge,” says the powerful Connacht lock.
“They have a great side. They’ve got plenty of experience in there with [Duane] Vermeulen, [Francois] Louw, [Tendai] Mtawarira and [Eben] Etzebeth but it’s a real challenge and we’re buzzing about it.
“It’s a new squad but it’s very strong all the same.”
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South Africa’s Eben Etzebeth. Source: Alastair Grant
Etzebeth is just one of several imposing locks at the disposal of new head coach Allister Coetzee.
The Stormers second rower is joined in the Boks squad by Lood de Jager and the giant Pieter-Steph du Toit, who was passed fit to play in the series yesterday having struggled with a hamstring injury in recent weeks.
“I would have watched him [Etzebeth] while I was coming through the academy in Galway. I’d definitely have plenty of respect for him but I’m just really excited to play against the guy.
“There’s brilliant talent there, there hasn’t been a step back since Victor Matfield retired.
“They have so much depth. Lood de Jager has plenty of experience next to Etzebeth.”
This is the first Ireland senior tour for the talented 22-year-old who forms part of a seven-strong Connacht contingent along with Finlay Bealham, Quinn Roux, Tiernan O’Halloran, Kieran Marmion, Matt Healy and Robbie Henshaw, who will ply his trade with Leinster next season.
“It’s a been bit surreal all right,” he explains. “It still hasn’t sunk in much but I’m loving every minute of it.
“It’s certainly been a breath of fresh air and everyone’s real comfortable and there’s a nice confidence in the air. It’s just a happy place at the moment.”
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