Cormac Izuchukwu ready to take a giant step with Ulster

'When I got to rural Ireland and Tullamore I got a bit of a culture shock'

Cormac Izuchukwu  crossed for five tries and was a standout player at the RugbyX tournament in the O2 Arena, London, in October 2019. File photograph: Stella Pictures

Cormac Izuchukwu crossed for five tries and was a standout player at the RugbyX tournament in the O2 Arena, London, in October 2019. File photograph: Stella Pictures

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Orthodox is overrated, just ask Cormac Izuchukwu. A pathway from schools and clubs is commonplace for aspirants looking to gain a foothold in professional rugby but Izuchukwu’s tale is one that can inspire those whose starting point is a little more left field.

London, Tullamore, Roscrea, Kelso, Newcastle, Dublin and finally Belfast represent signposts on an occasionally serendipitous rugby journey that owed more to impulse than anything predetermined or calculated. The 20-year-old recently joined the Ulster Academy while retaining his place in the Ireland Sevens programme.

At 6ft 7in he cuts an imposing figure, albeit that he is still chiselling that frame, on foot of a 5in growth spurt in his late teens. It explains why he was a centre at school, plays wing for the Ireland Sevens before discovering a new rugby vocation as a secondrow in a five month stint in the Scottish Borders.

A succession of coaches, Ciaran Egan (Tullamore), Pieter Swanepoel (Cistercian Roscrea), Gary Stevens (Kelso), Colm Tucker, Noel McNamara and Kieran Campbell (all Ireland Under-20s) and Anthony Eddy (Ireland Sevens) saw the potential, each looking to smooth rough edges, investing patience and time; it wouldn’t have been possible without the player’s growing maturity and a commitment to hard work.

Izuchukwu spent his first seven years in London before his mother Catriona – she’s a cousin of the Offaly All Ireland hurling winning brothers, Joe, Billy and Johnny Dooley – brought three children, Cormac and his older siblings, Chinnie and Ciara, back to Tullamore, while his dad and eldest brother remained in the English capital.

“My Dad is Nigerian. My mum moved to London to find work, met my Dad and they had us. I can remember quite a lot from growing up over there. London was multicultural. When I got to rural Ireland and Tullamore I got a bit of a culture shock. I went from being one of several kids in a small class in my play school to the only black kid at primary school. It was quite a big change.

“It’s a topical conversation now when you see the whole thing with George Floyd but at that age kids don’t really see colour. I fitted in well from day one. I am lucky I never had any problems with my [mixed] race [background]. Kids take you for who you are.”

He recalls his childhood fondly, especially in the in-house competition when it came to sport. Chinnie, three years older, set a high bar. “He was a good hurler, played for Offaly and was man of the match in a county final [with Tullamore GAA club].

“He won an All Ireland title in 1500m, ran for Ireland in cross-country and also competed for [internationally] in the Mountain Running European Championships in France. Watching him wear the green singlet made me proud and it was something I wanted to achieve; I just wasn’t sure what sport.

“My mother is a Dooley so there would be a bit of expectation that I would play hurling and a bit of football which I did underage for Offaly. If you had asked me a couple of years ago I would have said that my ambition was to play football for Offaly.”

“Izzy” as he is known to friends and team-mates embraced sport with gusto, Gaelic football, hurling, basketball, athletics, rugby and pitch and putt but from an academic perspective, his mum decided that after three years in the local secondary school, Coláiste Choilm, the discipline of a boarding school might offer a corrective influence in terms of attitude and application.

He explained: “I was very energetic when I was younger and got myself in a small bit of trouble. I found it hard to sit down and study. After the Junior Cert my Mam decided it was better for me to get a fresh start and go somewhere else to focus on my education because I really wasn’t giving it too much attention.”

Apprehensive about leaving behind friends and the familiarity of his life in Tullamore, he found it initially difficult to settle in Roscrea. “You’re in a dorm with 30 or 35 kids who have been living together for three years. They have their own social circles and banter. You are lying in bed listening to people joking and laughing and wondering if you will ever get to sleep. Once you make friends it’s like a big sleepover and you have those for life.”

Izuchukwu couldn’t play Leinster Schools Senior Cup rugby until sixth year because of the 20-month rule brought in essentially to stop players switching between schools in the senior cycle. Lining out with the seconds and thirds allowed him to manage the jump in standard from club to school a little more easily.

He also matured physically going from a “skinny kid, just above average height and weighing 68kgs [150lbs] when I arrived in Roscrea to 6ft 7in and 105kgs [231lbs] by the summer of sixth year.” He attended Leinster trials when in fifth year but never got picked.

Connacht’s provincial talent manager and Ireland 20s forwards’ coach Colm Tucker offered him an opportunity to attend a screening day for the Connacht Under-19s but Izuchukwu twisted an ankle playing tag the week before and had to withdraw.

It was a precursor to chasing his rugby dream in Scotland. With no wifi or television at home, he used to go down to the local library to check the internet and catch up on emails, generally on the way to the pub, where he worked at the time. A friend told him about a particular website that he thought might be useful if Izuchukwu still fancied giving rugby a crack.

“It’s [like] a DoneDeal for rugby players. I sent an email to Kelso. I was going over there to play secondrow but I had never played a minute there in my life.” The club took a chance, paid his airfare and arranged accommodation.

It was at Kelso that he enjoyed his next stroke of good fortune. New Zealand-born coach Gary Stevens, who looked after the young player, got him attuned on and off the pitch. At the same time he attended several Newcastle Falcons sessions by invitation over a four week period, his first real exposure to life as a professional rugby player.

“He did so much for me as a person as well as a player. I was a bit lost over there. He would have me over for dinner in his house most nights. He sat me down and spoke about preparation, got me focused. He made that YouTube video and sent it to a couple of clubs.”

Anthony Eddy decided that Izuchukwu fitted the profile for the sevens programme and brought him home after five months in Scotland. Izuchukwu will never forget that first session. “I lasted four minutes. They put me up in a hotel and I remember lying in the room thinking, ‘I’m not going to be able to manage this.’ I was thinking of ringing Anthony and getting him to rip up my contract.

“I did fitness sessions, twice a day, was on a bike, rejigged my diet completely. In Newcastle they had wanted me to play eight so they were looking for me to bulk up and I was about 116kgs coming back. TJ [strength and conditioning coach, Allan Temple Jones] ran the legs into me until I was finally able to do a full training session.

“It took about 10 weeks to get to that point. I referred to it as me going through fat camp. Every day after training I’d be lying on the floor wondering what I was doing. I couldn’t pass well off my left or right hands, was slow [not quite true as he has a timed 9.66m per second] and unfit. I began to doubt myself.”

Bank of Ireland Leinster Schools Senior Cup Round 1, 2018. Wesley vs Cistercian College, Roscrea – Cistercian’s Cormac Izuchukwu jinks past James McElroy of Wesley. File photograph: Inpho
Bank of Ireland Leinster Schools Senior Cup Round 1, 2018. Wesley vs Cistercian College, Roscrea – Cistercian’s Cormac Izuchukwu jinks past James McElroy of Wesley. File photograph: Inpho

He got over the hump, played in World Series tournaments in Paris – scored his first try against Scotland – and London before returning to the latter for a new RugbyX [five versus five] tournament; he crossed for five tries and was a standout player.

Izuchukwu pointed out that just 18-months earlier he sat in study in Roscrea watching fellow Tullamore man Jordan Conroy and American Sevens stars like Carlin Isles and Perry Baker and South Africa’s Seabelo Senatla. Now he was playing with and against them. Billy Dardis and Harry McNulty in particular helped him to work hard on his skills after training.

Playing in Dubai last December he chipped a bone in his ankle and this compromised his fitness ahead of Ireland Under-20 training camps. Given that he’d never played secondrow prior to his Scottish sojourn Izuchukwu feared he’d stick out horribly when rubbing shoulders with the best young players in the country.

Tucker, Kieran Campbell and Noel McNamara provided the instruction and Izuchukwu absorbed the information, making steady, incremental progress. He recalls: “The first two camps I wasn’t good, probably wasn’t there on merit in the sense that Anthony Eddy had sent me up.

“Noel McNamara took a chance on me. By the final camp I was winning lineout ball, getting stuck in. I love contact. Noel pulled me aside and said that ‘if you had been as good in the first camp you could have been playing [in the U-20 Six Nations].’

“That meant the world to me. To have never played secondrow and come into a 20s camp and be told by the end you were good enough to play, it made me consider that I might have a future in 15s. When I heard Ulster were interested it was a no-brainer to give it a shot.”

He’s found a place to live in Belfast and will switch to a university in the city – he was studying Human Resource management at TU Dublin – as the jigsaw begins to present a more definitive picture. Continuing to refine his talent through hard work will allow him to fulfil his primary ambition when it comes to rugby.

“I love the sport, everything about it. In a perfect world, I get to play, have a career and make money but once I am having fun, I’ll stay doing it.”

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