Belfast Telegraph

It would be so special to lift a trophy after 200th cap: Diack


By Michael Sadlier

It's funny how things have worked out, but the latest entrants to Ulster's 200 cap club - membership is currently restricted to just Andrew Trimble and the now retired Roger Wilson - look to be coming thick and fast.

Robbie Diack reaches the milestone on Sunday in the rather intimidating environs of Stade Marcel-Deflandre, while close behind him will be Paul Marshall, who is also expected to make the trip for his 199th appearance for the province.

And also in the vicinity is Darren Cave, who is looking good to hit 197 in La Rochelle, while the yet to return Rory Best - who could well be in France, though as a morale-boosting water-carrier - currently sits on 198.

As for Trimble, he is way out in front of his still-playing team-mates and is also on course to become Ulster's most capped player ever as it seems likely that the winger, who actually turns 33 today, will be in France to play his 222nd game for his home province and just nudge ahead of Wilson.

And, while much attention seems likely to fall Trimble's way should he break new ground, it is still a very special day for Diack and one which has significant meaning to him nine years after coming here from South Africa.

"It's a huge honour for me," said the player - who was primarily a back-rower but is now seen more as a lock - who arrived as a 22-year-old from the Stormers after being signed by then Ulster coach Matt Williams.

"When I came to Ulster in 2008, I never thought that nine years down the line I'd still be playing and preparing for my 200th game in La Rochelle."

He has witnessed Ulster rise from eking out an existence as a side struggling for direction - when Diack arrived it had been just two years since the league win which is still Ulster's last trophy success - to actually then making knockout rugby on a regular basis before, well, along came the rather sobering showing from last season.

Throughout it all, though, claiming a cup has remained as elusive as ever, which remains a constant frustration for Diack.

"There have been ups and downs with the club and some good and bad seasons, and I think for me to make it a really special occasion on reaching my 200th cap would be to ultimately mark it with some silverware," he said.

"That's really high up on my agenda and I would love to do that."

It hasn't been a particularly easy journey either for Diack as, along with the inevitable injuries, he has increasingly battled for a starting spot for a number of seasons now, with his conversion to second row still largely interpreted as a role which, again, will largely involve being back-up.

Nevertheless, the South African has shown a creditable ability to adapt and, with his current contract believed to run up until summer 2019, it would appear that the Johannesburg-born player will more than likely be able to finish his career at Ulster.

The irony is that Diack's close friend and business associate Ruan Pienaar - who also happened to be a neighbour before his enforced relocation to Montpellier - was not afforded his desired wish to see out his time at Kingspan Stadium.

True, but then Diack's situation is somewhat different as he is Ireland-qualified thanks to not having ever played for his native land and through serving his time to gain residency here.

He even managed to fulfil one of his stated ambitions by playing for Ireland and picking up a couple of caps.

Away from rugby, he has put down deep roots here with South African wife Kirsty and their young family, and is another member of the squad with an interest in Belfast's booming café culture.

"We feel like this is home, and a great place to be in," he said.

Diack is, understandably, in reflective form and is happy enough to look back on the good as well as the not so uplifting, memories that have come with the territory of being one of the province's longest serving players.

But there is a huge game beckoning on Sunday, one where his experience will be invaluable.

Taking on La Rochelle, one of France's most powerful outfits with a near bullet-proof record at their stadium fortress, could hardly be more of a daunting mission for this Ulster squad's second pool game in Europe.

"We haven't played against a team like this in a while," he stated ahead of what will be the first ever time the sides have met in the competition. "But these are the places where you test yourself as a team and to go there and put in a performance will be huge for us."

Just to add to the occasion, this will be the hosts' first home game in the Champions Cup, and a truly raucous atmosphere is awaiting the province as La Rochelle come off an impressive bonus-point win at Harlequins.

Of course, Diack has faced down such situations before. He was there when Ulster finally tasted a competitive win in France back in January 2013 at Castres.

And then there was the glorious taking apart of the much-fancied Montpellier in their own back-yard, nine months after the Castres result.

And Diack was also on hand for the victories at Toulouse and Oyonnax the season before last.

"To get those games behind us was great," he maintained. "We realise just how difficult it is in France but we'll take confidence from those (earlier) games.

"There will be some players who were all involved in those games as well so we know what it will take."

Of course, some will also readily recall the tanking they took at Toulon in January 2015 and others, Diack included, will even be able to dredge up the 35-15 beating that was handed out to Ulster in Biarritz seven years ago.

"Yes, there are times you'd rather forget, and that's part and parcel of it," said Diack, batting those memories away before returning to a well-worn theme before his special game. "You just hope that when the time is right we can bring silverware home and I hope I'm still here to be part of that.

"And I'll keep striving for that."

La Rochelle vs Ulster

Champions Cup:

Stade Marcel Deflandre, Sunday, 3.15 pm

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