With reports emerging earlier today that Munster are considering a swoop for Connacht adoptee and stand-out Ultan Dillane, we spoke with a former Munster underage player who trained alongside Dillane in Cork and Limerick before the Tralee man moved to Connacht.
The former player in question provided some fascinating insight - not just into why it never worked out for Dillane at Munster despite his prodigious talent, but perhaps too why Munster have failed to cultivate the calibre of player that their provincial rivals have consistently churned out at senior level over the last five or six seasons.
"I played with Ultan at Munster under-19s and a small bit at under-20s," he says, speaking from America where he now works. First impressions?
Ah, he was absolutely disgracefully ripped - not a pick on him. He wasn't as consistent as he'd be now around the pitch, but he'd always have a burst or a big hit that would actually frighten you. He was built for it. Chiselled.
Back in the 2010-11 season, Current Connacht forwards coach Jimmy Duffy was the assistant coach to the Irish Youths (clubs) Under-18 team, and had witnessed Dillane’s rapid progression for the bones of four years. Head coach Greg Lynch asked Duffy to take in an interpro between Connacht and Munster - the latter a side which contained Dillane - in Dooradoyle, Limerick.
Dillane subsequently made the Irish Youths squad that season, where they registered their first ever victory away to France - with Dillane stealing two lineouts and crashing over in the corner for a crucial score.
Despite this success at underage international level, Dillane was perceived not to have done enough to earn himself a full academy contract; instead, he was offered a sub-academy deal while Nigel Carolan and Connacht monitored his development from up the M20. The rest, as they say...
It's something which, even now, his former Munster underage teammate can't comprehend. But having come up through the same system in Cork and Limerick, he explains that what Dillane brought to table - aggression, athleticism and skill - were almost surplus to what the Munster academy staff sought in a young player:
He was by far the best athlete in the squad, but he was basically a mute on the pitch - when I was there anyway. Munster always seemed to push lads who were brilliant talkers in the dressing room or huddle, and would try to build their skills and athletic ability around that trait rather than the other way around.
There was guys being given academy contracts who were obviously good players and had great attitudes, but you just couldn't imagine them making an impact with Munster or Ireland. Munster did that instead of just picking 'the freak athlete', which seems like the obvious thing to do in a game like rugby.
It seems oddly 'Munster' - or, at least, typical of the Munster we've seen struggle over the past half decade or so. Prioritising leadership and communication over pure rugby-playing ability; trying to birth a future captain instead of the next jaw-dropping star.
Maybe they got too loyal to the idea of passion and bravery and all that, which was linked with Mick Galwey and The Claw and the likes, not realising that the game had changed so much with professionalism that it wasn't enough anymore.
It's just a completely different culture to the way I think Leinster pushed their younger players. Leinster always went the powerful, pacy guys for the most part, and worried about the mental or technical side afterwards.
Like, if you even compare it to the way American football do it; if there was a Munster combine or something back then, Dillane would have been first pick.
I felt Munster coaches would get much more satisfaction from the slug fest 6-3 win, and they didn't have much interest in the try-fest. More 'pride' and 'unity' and all that shite - which, in fairness, is needed - but I think you should pick players who are capable of racking up the tries and teach them how to get through the hard battles, instead of the other way around.
The club have doubtless now moved on - at least partially - from such a 'traditional' mindset when it comes to developing players, and had even before 'Rassie' Erasmus' arrival. But even at that, doubting Dillane on the basis that he was a quiet lad from Tralee RFC as opposed to a city slicker from Christians, Pres or Munchins is exactly the approach which has seen Munster fail to produce talent akin to their provincial rivals, and his departure still draws the ire of frustrated fans today.
A Paul Pogba-style return would make for sensational news, but you'd have to hope for Munster's sake that they've learned from the mistakes which culminated in their becoming the weakest province in Irish rugby last season. In that sense, the progress of Ireland u19s front row Ben Betts at Leicester, amongst others, will make for some intriguing observation.