Robbie Diack on a mission to prove credentials
Published 25/01/2014 | 01:31
A day before Joe Schmidt announced Ireland's 44-strong extended squad for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship, Ulster's Robbie Diack was wondering where he stood in the head coach's plans, if indeed he was in them at all.
Back in June, he had played in the Tbilisi Cup for Emerging Ireland against Georgia and the South African President's XV, putting in full shifts in both. Having become eligible for Ireland by dint of residency, this was Diack's first international call.
With the tourists having included Ulster colleagues Rob Herring, Niall Annett, Ricky Lutton, Lewis Stevenson, Michael Heaney, Michael Allen and Peter Nelson, plus Allen Clarke in the role of head coach and Joey Miles as manager, that eased things considerably for the big South African's first sortie into the Irish set-up.
He had been on the radar for some time and the decision to use him in the first two of Emerging Ireland's three June outings at Avchaia Stadium proved that the IRFU were keen to know if their wait for his services had been worthwhile.
So on the eve of Schmidt (pictured) naming his extended squad for the 2014 Six Nations, it had come as a surprise to hear Diack say: "To be honest I haven't had any feedback. I've got a couple of phone-calls in the past telling me how unlucky I'd been and that's about it."
Nevertheless it was – and is – quite obvious that he has ambitions to push on. And tonight represents another step forward, with Diack on the Ireland Wolfhounds' bench for the clash with England Saxons at Kingsholm.
In that same exclusive interview, he told me: "It has always been a dream of mine to play international rugby, that's where I'd like to be."
He qualified that by adding: "But right now, keeping my place in this Ulster team is my main goal. If I can do that and then get a call-up, that will be brilliant. But I'm absolutely loving my experience with Ulster and the challenge they are giving me. We're in a very exciting place, both in the RaboDirect (PRO12) and in the Heineken (Cup). If we can keep going in those competitions, then brilliant.
"And if something happens with Ireland or the Wolfhounds, fantastic – I'll take it with both hands and I'll treasure that as well. But at the moment I'm focusing on Ulster."
Diack admits to only coming into his own where he feels he belongs and is valued. Proof comes in the form of inclusion on a regular basis.
If Schmidt or Wolfhounds' coach Anthony Foley want to go how to get the best out of him, they should consult Mark Anscombe, who has got the 28-year-old Johannesburg-born back row forward playing better than ever in Ulster's back row.
Reflecting on how his career has been rebuilt, Diack said: "I've played a lot of rugby this year and my self-confidence has grown as a result.
"I've been given opportunities at Heineken Cup level. That's top-flight rugby, rather than week-in, week-out RaboDirect and that has enabled me to grow as a player on the pitch rather than just the training ground or the gym.
"It's the opportunity to go out there and build your self-confidence by proving to yourself that you can do things on the pitch that maybe, a couple of years ago, you would not have done or tried to do.
"I think the fact that the coaches have confidence in me is the biggest factor for me.
"To know that you have the backing of the coaching staff and your fellow-players is the biggest thing for me.
"There is nothing worse than going out and playing on a big stage like this not having the belief that others have confidence in you; there's nothing more demoralising than that.
"The biggest change for me is that people have had confidence in me. Last season and this season they have given me the chance, they have seen my ability and they haven't doubted me.
"That, for me, is massive, so I don't want to let them down. There is nothing worse than letting people around you down – your team-mates or the coaches who have shown confidence in you.
"Once you start playing regularly and getting used to the players around you, you grow as an individual and as a team. These have been my two best seasons so far with Ulster, undoubtedly."
His two outings for Emerging Ireland were at No 8. Leinster's Rhys Ruddock wore six in both of those matches and the fact that he was tour captain clearly did Diack no favours – in any side the skipper is always the hardest man to dislodge.
Now at Wolfhounds-level, too, Ruddock is captain and blindside. And on this occasion it is ex-Leinster Academy player Robin Copeland – now with Cardiff Blues – who starts at eight.
But Diack's turn will come and, if history is any guide, he will seize it when it does. So England Saxons, beware if you see a 6ft 5in South African wearing the green of Ireland emblazoned with number 19 rising from the bench tonight.
He is on a mission to prove something to himself and others. You have been warned.