Patient Timoney now making the most of his considerable ability

Ulster and Ireland backrow has worked hard on his game over the years and is now reaping the rewards

For a slow-burning player who took his time in getting there, Dubliner Nick Timoney has been showing those around Ravenhill Road he's been worth the wait.

His twister of a performance for Ulster in their win against Leinster last week was another shot of what Timoney has become as a backrow player, now tending towards seven, over five seasons in Belfast.

If Ireland coach, Andy Farrell, was looking for reinforcement of the decision to hand him his first cap against the USA last summer, well, on that Timoney has caused no reason for uncertain reflection.

The raw materials of the 26-year-old have never been in doubt. Timoney has always had the athleticism to play a mobile, speed driven kind of game, from his involvement with the Irish Under 20s to the Ireland sevens team. It seems he is now where he was headed all along.


"The important thing with Nick, which I found with the U20s, is that he is extremely coachable," says Nigel Carolan, former Irish Under 20s coach and now the attack coach with Glasgow.

“He asks questions, he probes. He was always keen to find that edge, how he could get the edge on somebody else. That ‘coachability’ part has been huge for him because he has been open minded in terms of his own development. He also spent a good period of time doing Sevens rugby.

“It’s improved his work rate, his dynamism, his skills, his ability to get on the ball, his offload and passing in terms of his link play. That transfers into the 15 game. He has been very open-minded and that’s the ‘coachability’ part. He’s doing everything that he can to find a niche.”

Particularly this year, the former Blackrock College student has been carving a place of his own in a crowded arena and has added impactful elements to a naturally restless and energetic game.

Now hitting the peak years, Timoney, who turned to athletics in school to engineer into his play speed and pace, is comfortably in a first pick position, although his early morning call and dash from Belfast on the day of Ireland's match against Argentina in this year's November Series has now become a piece of rugby performance art.

It had an amateur romp about it at the beginning, fumbling in the Belfast darkness before driving to Dublin on the day of the match and endearingly believing enjoyment of the moment would be no more than sucking up the atmosphere in an Aviva warm up.

“I was barely awake when I got a phone call off Faz,” said Timoney. “I got home after training on Thursday thinking that was it for the November Series and I was feeling a little bit disappointed.”

From the blown lie-in to pointing the car to the Dublin road didn’t take long.

“I would say about 12.5 minutes,” he said. “No, I wasn’t breaking any speed limits. I knew I had a good bit of time. But I just sort of made sure I didn’t waste any time mucking around. I didn’t seem to miss anything too drastic, managed to somewhat pull it together and get on the pitch.

Getting ready

“I didn’t think I would be doing anything other than the warm-up. So I was pretty relaxed. Then I saw Hendy [Iain Henderson] holding his hamstring a bit at the end of the warm-up and I said to Bairdo [Ryan Baird] ‘Here maybe get ready because it looks like Hendy has pulled up with something’.

“He was like ‘I think you should maybe start getting ready as well because you’re going to be on the bench’ so I was there ‘Yeah, actually, that’s a pretty good point.’”

So far this season Timoney has scored five tries for Ulster to add to the one he grabbed to mark his debut against the USA in July. The glamour end of scoring is eye-catching but more impressively in the RDS Timoney made 19 tackles with 17 carries as well as a few turnovers.

Among others he caught the eye of former Irish captain and number eight, Jamie Heaslip, who chose the Ulster flanker as "one of the players that really targeted the rucks at the right times".

Not a bad rise for a one-time number eight, who was on his way to Pau in France from Leinster, having missed out on a place in the academy in the 2015-16 season.

Determined to be a professional player and showing no small degree of character and self-belief, at 21-years-old Timoney left the comforts of south Dublin and a Leinster environment populated by players with whom he had played with in school. He moved to Belfast.

Today against Ospreys he starts with the talented young Dave McCann at number eight and Sean Reidy at blindside with Marcus Rea covering from the bench.

“I got chucked out of the Leinster system and there was a month or two where I certainly knew I wanted to keep playing rugby but I didn’t know where or when,” Timoney told Murray Kinsella in June.

"Then there was talk about going over to France, I had that lined up and ready to go. I got a call from Niall Woods [his agent] , who said Ulster were looking to take me. Straight away the decision was made."

From then until now has been a journey. He worked on getting his tackle counts up and then making them count when he made them. During lockdown he focused on the breakdown, concentrating on the new rules and how to exploit them for gain.

Explosive quality

The changes were adjustments to how he played more than wholesale change. The nudge towards playing at seven, where his explosive quality has a more profound influence, has also been a factor in doing smaller things better. As a result Timoney has been, in a larger sense than playing, gaining greater traction.

“What’s happened in the game is teams are trying to break defences down. There is less and less focus in ‘he’s an out-and-out seven or out-and-out eight’. The number on your back doesn’t mean anything,” says Carolan.

“The backrows are beginning to gel in. It’s finding players who are competent ball carriers, who are good workers and who are lineout forwards and that’s the blend you are looking for in your backrow rather than the out-and-out seven, the traditional 8 and a blindside.

“Nick brings a serious threat as an opposition player and he’s a player you feel could hurt you because he’s got that ball carry threat and in defence that threat over the ball. And he’s relentless, he never stops working.

“With Duane Vermeulen coming in I don’t think Nick is going to be the one that’s put out. They will find ways around getting the balance in that backrow. It’s all about combining. The way Ulster are trying to play it is ‘high ball in play time’ so it suits players, who are mobile and who can repeat physical efforts with serious intensity. Nick epitomises that.”

Timoney will say that his years in the North have been kind to him and informative. Leinster overspill to international player needs little parsing.

In the past, issues have been made out of moving from South Dublin to South Belfast. Any fault lines that may have existed there have gone entirely unnoticed. Timoney has fitted and settled seamlessly into the city and over the years as a player has grown.

Before Marcel Coetzee returned to South Africa, he also acted as a transmitter of backrow information, Timoney one of the principal recipients. Perhaps Ulster's best player between 2016-21 and having grown up in a different environment, Coetzee had a unique way of facing games along with work rate, a willingness to do the mundane and never let a big moment slip by. From that flesh and bone rugby encyclopedia, Timoney diligently harvested and curated the best.

That’s how coach Dan McFarland sees Timoney now. Not as Coetzee. But a player who can create and win personal encounters around the pitch. Three or four years ago he was unable to do that, or do it as consistently and effectively as he does now.

“My conversations with Nick are about the amount of impacts he has on the game” says McFarland. “Nick has always been a great athlete. He has always been able to have impacts on the game but perhaps not as many as his ability says he should do.

“I think his determination in that area to really make an impact is probably a mindset change for him. He’s just ‘right I’m going to go out there. I’m going to enjoy it. I’m going to go for it with absolutely everything I’ve got’ and perhaps a little bit of switching to seven as well because at seven there is that mentality that you’ve got to be in everything.”

For any player in any position it’s not a bad manta, ‘to be in everything’. Then, at least, they can give themselves a chance. That’s where Timoney now finds himself between Ulster and Ireland. He’s there giving himself a chance.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times