THEN: Des Dillon earned 56 caps for Leinster Rugby over four seasons from 2002/03 to 2005/06.

NOW: He is married to Stephanie with three children James (7), Henry (5) and Holly (3), living in Monkstown, working as a Director of ‘Le Cheile’, a Life and Pensions company.

In March of 2003, Des Dillon had to feel good about himself when looking around the dressing room at Donnybrook, now known as Energia Park.

The 22-year-old had just been part of an Ireland ‘A’ side that had thwarted England with a 50-metre penalty from Mark McHugh deep into injury time.

So many of the exhausted, smiling faces in the room would go on to represent their country at the highest level, stalwarts like Simon Easterby, Donncha O’Callaghan and Tyrone Howe. In fact, just two of the 15, Barry Everitt and Dillon would end their playing days without a full senior cap.

Out-half Everitt chose a different path in a fine career that involved Munster, Leinster, London Irish and Northampton Saints.

Three years later, Dillon, the very promising No 8, was out of favour and out of the game due to a combination of injury and post-playing considerations.

“When I got selected to play in my first Ireland ‘A’ international, I could see the road ahead to an Ireland cap. It became more of a reality to me,” he says.

“I did my knee in that match which, subsequently, prevented me from playing in the next two matches.”

It is a familiar theme to Dillon’s career, injury intervening when the next step looked within reach in a professional career that was relatively short and not always sweet.

Coming out of Clongowes Wood College, coached by the late, great Vinnie Murray, the 6’ 6” back-five forward held a huge reputation as a natural leader from lifting the 1998 Leinster Senior Schools Cup as the captain.

The story of the schoolboy hero has been told many times over. Usually, it goes one of two ways.

The practical reality is that Des was still a teenager when he came into contact with mature, grizzled veterans of the game that had seen it all.

“I didn’t see myself as someone with a big reputation,” he says.

“At the time, professional rugby was just taking off. I was looking at Victor Costello and Eric Miller ahead of me in the back row. Really, they were the ones with the big reputations.

“When I came out of school, I was involved in the first Leinster Academy. There were five or six that came out every year. I was one of those.

“Around then, you are talking about the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Andy Dunne, Shane Moore, Shane Horgan and Dave Blaney.”

Sitting above them, his Clongowes classmate Gordon D’Arcy went straight into the senior squad.

It took three years from leaving school for Dillon to make his Leinster breakthrough, after a loan arrangement to Connacht in 2001.

“I had a great year at Connacht. I played No 8 for the entire season. Steph Nel was the coach, Eric Elwood the captain,” he recalls.

“It was my first experience of training full-time, being in the gym full-time, playing full-time. The seasons were shorter back then. From there, I returned to play for UCD for the rest of the season.

“In fact, I played for UCD for three or four great years, moving from Division 3 up to Division 1 in the All-Ireland League. It was a good starting point for me, in terms of training and getting used to senior rugby.”

Connacht followed up with a tempting contract offer which, ultimately, he turned down when Leinster coach Matt Williams made his pitch.

“I was coming into a set-up where Trevor Brennan had just left. It seemed like the right move at the time. Looking back on it, it probably wasn’t because I ended up sitting on the bench behind Victor and Eric for the next couple of seasons.

“It is well-documented how we had a new coach every year. Matt Williams left. Gary Ella came in. I played well that season, starting at No 8 the whole season.”

When Declan Kidney was the Ireland U-19 coach in 1999, Des was his captain. A strong connection had been made before Kidney became Leinster coach in 2004.

It was the basis for a four-year contract that spoke to Kidney’s opinion on Dillon and the importance of the versatile forward to Leinster’s future.

“A four-year deal was very rare back then. In hindsight, that was part of my downfall,” he shares.

“By year two, Michael Cheika had come in and I wasn’t getting selected. I wasn’t part of his plans. It was pretty frustrating to know you had two years left on your contract and you weren’t playing.”

Costello kept signing one-year contracts which kept Dillon attached to the idea that ‘next year could be my year’. He had his sights set on moving Costello out of the jersey. It just never happened.

All along, there were offers coming in from Harlequins and London Irish in England and Perpignan in France. But, there was enough reason to believe his chance was just around the corner.

In his last season, Cheika came in, installed a rigorous pre-season programme to have the Leinster players in great shape. However, in the first match of 2005/06, a back injury effectively accounted for six months out of the game.

In the meantime, along came Jamie Heaslip. And that was it. Mr Indestructible went on to win almost every honour in the game, while Dillon was out of professional rugby by the end of the season.

“When I look back on it, I could have easily gone away, played with another club and returned home a few years later. I just always wanted to play for Leinster. It was my club.”

He could never let go of the dream of becoming a centrepiece of Leinster’s future and fell between two stools as a multi-position player, a jack of all trades.

“The frustration was in not starting for Cheika. You can’t make a case if you’re not playing. When I was on the bench, I was covering a number of positions and, maybe, caught in between being a second row and back row.”

In December 2005, he chose to move to Ospreys because Ryan Jones had been hampered by injury, playing well enough to be offered a multi-year contract by the Welsh club. He decided not to take it.

“My back was always at me. I was never able to train fully, to take on the workload I needed to be at my peak physically,” he says.

At one point, he sat down with Leinster’s doctors Arthur Tanner and Jim McShane to be told how it was not a good idea to play on. The scans suggested arthritis in the lower spine which could have been remedied by a spinal fusion.

The support of his parents, Leo, a County Carlow club man, and Mary, at his games and for their advice eased the burden of decision-making.

“I didn’t want to go ahead with the operation because of the long-term life implications,” he admits.

Thankfully, he had embraced education, starting with a BA in Sports Management at UCD, following up with an Information Technology course, a stockbroking course, and a property management course at Dublin Business School. He is a Qualified Financial Advisor and Specialist in Alternative Investments now.

“I was frustrated. I wasn’t getting selected. I was offered a job at Davy Stockbrokers. And I took it,” he adds.

“Looking back, I am glad I made that choice. I have been working away for more than 15 years since I retired.”

He took a lot from what he had learned in rugby and used it as the basis for moving into a new area.

“Rugby definitely helped in my transition. You bring a team mentality, a lot of confidence and discipline.

“I am in the Life and Pensions industry as a Director of ‘Le Cheile’ Group Financial Services. It is going really well. I am out and about meeting people, working on business development, bringing clients to matches, using sport as an ice-breaker to discuss business.

“I made lifelong friends in my time playing, in particular guys like Niall Treston, Brian O’Riordan, Gavin Hickie, Dave Blaney and Darce (D’Arcy). We still meet up regularly at different events, like those organised by the Rugby Players of Ireland Past Players Union.

The benefit of time has enabled Dillon to recount his experience at Leinster as a positive part of his life.

“I look back at it with great fondness. Sure, there was frustration. But, I took a lot from all the teams I played for and I still use those tools today.”