It has been a whirlwind few weeks for Clontarf captain Dylan Donnellan who came off the bench against the Hollywoodbets Sharks to make his debut for Leinster at the end of October. His second cap came just a week later against Edinburgh.
For Energia All-Ireland League enthusiasts, Donnellan is a household name. His call-up to play for Leo Cullen’s men would not have surprised the Clontarf supporters who watch him play every week.
The 28-year-old hooker has been one of the most consistent performers in Division 1A, scoring just shy of 50 tries since the start of the 2021/22 campaign. With 22 and 19 tries respectively, he topped the try-scoring charts for the last two seasons.
Ireland internationals Dan Sheehan and Rónan Kelleher were still on a break following the Rugby World Cup, and with John McKee and Gus McCarthy both unavailable through injury, the unexpected opportunity with Leinster caught Donnellan by surprise.
“Obviously, it’s been a great experience but it wouldn’t have been something that I was thinking about,” he told IrishRugby.ie, speaking as a he took a break from his day job as a technical sales specialist with Lennox Laboratories.
“I couldn’t have imagined it on the Monday morning heading out for work before I got the phone call, but it was nice to be able to do it.
“It’s been good with ‘Tarf. We’ve started (the season) well there. On all fronts things are going well.”
Born in Galway where he played with his father Paul’s club, Galway Corinthians, Donnellan is no stranger to wearing the blue of Leinster, having last played for the province’s Development team in 2018.
He attended Clongowes Wood College in Kildare and went on to line out for Leinster at Under-18, Under-19 and Under-20 level. Recognition also came with the Ireland Under-20s in 2014, before he spent a couple of years in France with Biarritz Olympique.
He also had a season in England with Yorkshire Carnegie before making Castle Avenue his permanent rugby home. He has become a Clontarf stalwart, held in such high regard that he replaced the talismanic Matt D’Arcy as club captain for 2023/24.
Getting the reward of a first senior cap with Leinster after years grinding away and enjoying his rugby in the All-Ireland League is undoubtedly a satisfying accomplishment.
“All through my early 20s, I was chasing the dream. You’re going where the contracts take you and that’s how I ended up in France and England.
At some stage you have to make the decision. If you’re not really cutting it at the top level, do you keep slogging away at that level or do you decide to get your foot on the ladder with employment and your career and start moving on with that?
“That’s the choice I made. I play AIL with a great club. Things worked out, and they didn’t to another degree, but you have to be grateful for what you’ve got and start moving on with your life.
“I love playing with Clontarf, they’ve been very good to me since I came here. I absolutely love it here. I’m part of the furniture here now and they’re not getting rid of me any time soon!”
He hopes his recent achievement can help motivate other Energia All-Ireland League players to keep plugging away and turning in performances as who knows what the future holds.
“I suppose it’s a nice story for guys at club level to have. If you work hard even if you’re not on a professional contract or in an Academy system, it doesn’t mean the opportunity won’t come for you later down the line.
“It shows the level the league is at that the provinces trust somebody from the league to be able to make that step up and do a job for them, even if it’s only for a couple of weeks.”
A key figure in ‘Tarf’s recapturing of the Division 1A crown in 2022, Donnellan is determined to bring the trophy back to the Bull Ring next May, ten years on from their historic first Energia All-Ireland League success.
His reign as captain has started very well with Andy Wood’s charges unbeaten across the league’s first six rounds. They are top of the table, just a point clear of Cork Constitution whom they host this Saturday in an eagerly-awaited heavyweight clash.
“It was a massive honour to be made captain of this club,” admitted Donnellan. “Since I’ve come up here it has become my home away from home. I have long-term aspirations of raising a family here.
“I love it, and the buy-in from my fiancée (Gemma) and my family down in Galway has been great. It meant a lot to me to be named as captain this year.
“It’s probably not something I would have thought about when I first joined the club. But to be held in that regard by the club is a special thing.”
Star centre D’Arcy has been the captain for the last number of seasons, himself and his twin brother Adrian, who retired from playing after the 2022 league final, have become club legends. Donnellan appreciates the continued support from Matt on the pitch.
“It’s great to still have Matt there, that helping hand. He’s obviously done it for so long. He’s been a key member of the squad for such a long time.
“It’s great to have guys like him, and Tony Ryan in the back row. Guys who can step up and say what needs to be said, it doesn’t all have to go through me.”
Wood’s side ended the regular season at the summit last April, finishing five points clear of Terenure College. They came out on the right side of a tight semi-final encounter with Young Munster, but were then well beaten by ‘Nure in the decider.
It was a tough pill for them to swallow but taking the learnings from that deflating 50-24 defeat at the Aviva Stadium, every effort is being made to ensure that they go one better this season.
“It’s not something we really talked about, but I guess it’s always in the back of the mind. We’ve got a really good group there.
“A solid group that has won the AIL title the season before, and lost one the next. A lot of us have experienced the best and worst feeling when it comes to finals. To have both of those experiences has made us a stronger group.”
Donnellan and mauls go together like bread and butter. You could almost bet your house on him scoring from a few metres out, especially given his finishing ability and the power that the ‘Tarf forwards generate.
He is the current top try scorer in Division 1A with seven tries, having bagged a brace last time out against Ballynahinch. He credits his fellow forwards for putting in the hard work that gets him over the whitewash.
“It’s really nice to have the accolade, but it’s all about the team in those tries. When you look at the guys who are doing all the hard work in front of me, getting smacked in the ribs, it really should go down as their try rather than mine.
“But, it’s also nice to be able to rub in it – they hate the fact I’m at the back of it!
“It’s nice to get those tries, and it’s nice to be at the back of it. We’re just one big motor. I’ll never say no to being back there,” he added.