Former Western Province and Stormers loose forward Robbie Diack made his Test debut for his adopted nation in June, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
Robbie Diack became eligible to play for Ireland in July 2011, having lived in the country for three years, but had to wait almost another three years before pulling on the emerald green jersey in a Test.
The former Stormers and Western Province loose forward, who left Cape Town in 2008 at the age of 22, had been part of extended Ireland squads for the World Cup, Six Nations and end-of-year Tests without getting a game, and represented Emerging Ireland in last year’s IRB Nations Cup in Georgia. This year, Emerging Ireland were set to travel to Romania with Ireland visiting Argentina, and there’s no prize for guessing where Diack wanted to go.
‘I found out I had made the Ireland squad when I received an email from the Irish Rugby Football Union a week before the tour,’ Diack tells SA Rugby magazine from Mauritius, where he is on holiday. ‘From that moment, I desperately wanted to get that first Test cap for Ireland and, thankfully, I got the opportunity.’
Diack started the first Test in Resistencia at blindside flank and played the full 80 minutes as Ireland beat the Pumas for the first time in Argentina in four attempts.
‘I knew I had to put in a big performance and I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform,’ he says. ‘I was really pleased with the way I played and got some good feedback from the coaching staff. I had an attacking and competing role at the lineout, which I was happy about, and to share the occasion with Paul O’Connell, who won his 100th Test cap, was fantastic. I hope I can keep improving and get a couple more Test caps to my name.’
Diack wasn’t included in Ireland’s match 23 for the second Test, with coach Joe Schmidt giving Rhys Ruddock a run, and he knows he’ll have to continue to excel for Ulster to get another crack.
‘My main competition at blindside flank is 24-year-old Peter O’Mahony, who’s had a great couple of seasons with Munster, and Rhys, who is 23 and plays for Leinster,’ says Diack. ‘Stephen Ferris was also competing for that position, but retired recently due to injury.’
'I want to play at the highest level and Ireland have given me the opportunity to do that'
While Ulster offered Diack good money and a change of scenery, it was the prospect of Test rugby that saw him leave South Africa at a relatively young age. Diack was getting regular game time at the Stormers and Western Province despite the presence of Luke Watson, Joe van Niekerk, Schalk Burger and Gerrie Britz, but his hopes of playing for the Springboks were slim.
‘Gary Gold, our forwards coach, told me that with the number of quality loose forwards in South Africa – Pierre Spies, Juan Smith, Danie Rossouw, the list went on and on – going to Ulster would be a good opportunity for me if I wanted to play international rugby.’
Diack has earned 127 caps for Ulster since making his debut against the Llanelli Scarlets in September 2008. He says Belfast now feels like home thanks, in part, to the number of South Africans who have played for the club, including BJ Botha, Pedrie Wannenburg, Stefan Terblanche, Johann Muller and Ruan Pienaar. All of those bar Pienaar have since left, but with Louis Ludik, Franco van der Merwe and Wiehahn Herbst having recently signed with Ulster, Diack will still have plenty of braai buddies next season.
However, of the club’s South African contingent, only Diack was signed as a ‘special project’ player – someone who is young enough and promising enough to qualify for Ireland under the IRB’s three-year residency rule. Former Cheetahs hooker Richardt Strauss joined Leinster as a special project player in 2009 and went on to make his Test debut for Ireland in 2012 against South Africa, while 24-year-old loose forward CJ Stander, who joined Munster from the Bulls in 2012, will be eligible for Ireland from October 2015.
While the policy is helping to strengthen the Irish national side, it has been criticised by some, including former captain Keith Wood, who believe the country should be developing its own talent instead of looking for relatively quick fixes overseas.
‘It’s a bit of a sensitive situation,’ Diack admits. ‘But rugby is my passion. I want to play at the highest level and Ireland have given me the opportunity to do that. I’ve chatted with Richardt and neither of us have regretted coming here.
‘I began my career with Western Province and the Stormers, and my dream was always to become a Springbok and pull on the green and gold jersey. But my dreams, ambitions and goals changed when I moved to Ulster and realised I could qualify to play for Ireland within three years and wear a jersey with a different shade of green. To pull on that Ireland jersey was a huge honour.’
OUTGOING IRELAND FORWARDS COACH JOHN PLUMTREE ON …
WHY DIACK WAS SELECTED FOR THE ARGENTINA TOUR, AND THE FIRST TEST
‘Robbie had been part of our wider training squad throughout the Six Nations. He impressed us with his attitude and commitment. We decided to leave Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien at home to recover from shoulder operations, which brought Robbie into our loose forward mix. When it came to the first Test, we decided to rest as many Leinster players as possible as they had just played the Pro12 final. So the team was made up of Ulster and Munster players.’
HOW DIACK PERFORMED ON DEBUT
‘I set Robbie some goals for the game and we worked on a couple of things during the week. We had a lot to do in terms of unit and team organising, so there was plenty for the players to digest. We were really happy with his game – he carried the ball more than any other forward and more than half of them were positive and provided momentum. He tackled strongly and won and stole ball in the middle of the lineout. He definitely got a pass mark for his game.’
DIACK’S BEST POSITION
‘I haven’t seen Robbie play at No 8 but he would have the skill set for it. We used him as lock cover in the first Test but it’s not a position he would be preferred at. He has played consistently well for Ulster at blindside flank. He times his runs well off No 9, and he is an excellent ball winner at the back and middle of the lineout. He is a smart operator and has leadership capabilities – I know [former Ulster captain] Johann Muller confided in him a lot.’
WHERE DIACK IS IN THE IRELAND PECKING ORDER
‘I think it would be fair to say Robbie is in the top six loose forwards in the country. He is an excellent athlete and has a great engine to compete for 80 minutes. I have told him to vary his ball-carrying techniques and ensure he works on having a strong shoulder-dominant tackle in his defensive arsenal. If he improves in those two areas, he has a great chance of future selection.’
– This article first appeared in the August 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine