Niyi Adeolokun flourishes out west as Pat Lam harnesses the raw talent
Connacht winger moved to Dublin from Nigeria when he was 10
Connacht’s Niyi Adeolokun evades Darren Sweetnam to score his side’s third try against Munster at the Sportsground earlier this season. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
He’s a great story. Not many Nigerians end up playing rugby – period – least of all professionally in Ireland, or in Connacht for that matter. It’s been quite the odyssey, starting in Ibadan, in the south west of Nigeria, 25 years ago, and ending up in the west of Ireland.
Having moved to Ireland when he was 10, Niyi Adeolokun’s first sporting love on these shores was Gaelic football, with soccer vying with rugby for second place.
De La Salle Churchtown was his introduction to a sport with an oval-shaped ball he’d previously never heard of and a stepping stone to the Leinster under-19 development set-up. Having been released by Leinster, you’d have had long odds on him ending up where he has.
But rejection was the spur he needed, and after resurrecting his career with Trinity, a trial and a development contract with the eagle-eyed Connacht set-up has led to his first professional contract.
At times, Adeolokun does allow himself to pause and reflect on his unlikely journey. “When I was in Dublin I wanted to play for Leinster obviously and when that didn’t happen I didn’t think I was going to get a chance to play professional rugby.
“So in the position I’m in right now, I do look back and think ‘yeah, I’m very lucky to be where I am.’ I’m very grateful that Pat [Lam] gave me the chance to be here. When I first arrived here I found it difficult. Galway is completely different from Dublin, but I quickly came to love it. The people are good, and in the last week and a half here the sun has been shining every day and the atmosphere around the town has been buzzing.
“I’m absolutely honoured to be a part of this. None of us have been in this situation before, even the likes of Muls [captain John Muldoon]. But we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves,” he says, feeling the need to temper his own enthusiasm fully four days before kick-off.
It’s both a long way and somewhat different from Ibadan, the third largest metropolitan area in Nigeria, after Lagos and Kano, with a population of 3.5 million. Adeolokun re-visited there last June for the first time in 14 years. “I remembered glimpses of it, but it was an eye-opener. I enjoyed it. It is congested, and parts of it are quite old, but parts of it are quite nice as well.
“It’s a lovely city, it was great to meet up with cousins and uncles and aunts, and nephews also. Some parts hadn’t changed at all and it brought back flashbacks of my childhood. I won’t be able to go back this summer but I plan on going back more regularly.”
Searched for work
Growing up there, he recalls that his parents moved around quite a bit, as his mum searched for work. “We lived a lot with my grandma, who had a restaurant. I remembered we mainly did stuff ourselves, and played football and other sports late into the evening, and then my uncle would get angry and call us in. But we had nothing to worry about and just enjoyed ourselves.”
Ironically, his uncle Solomon has since been over to Ireland and watched Adeolokun play for Connacht.
Adeolokun was 10 years old when his mother Rebecca took him and his brother Laurence with her to Dublin, in 2001, so that she could pursue better work opportunities. She became a nurse in St James’s Street Hospital.
“Most Nigerians have an English name and a Nigerian name. My brother’s name is Dolapo and my mum’s is Olubummi.” He prefers to keep his African name. “I like Niyi. It’s more distinctive,” he says, smiling.
His love of sports was hugely instrumental in helping him adapt to his new life in Ireland. “I remember at the start not knowing anyone and not having any friends, but then when I went to school and played sports I started to make friends easily.”
Playing for the Dubs became his main sporting ambition in his teenage years, and he has stayed in touch with his coach, Martin Smith, and team-mates from Templeogue Synge Street. He played football with Manortown United, Dundrum, Verona (when the family moved to Blanchardstown) and finally the Shelbourne under-20s.
He also played tennis, basketball, badminton and squash. “I played a lot of stuff,” he says. “Anything to get outside.”
His coach at De La Salle, Lorcan Balfe contacted Leinster and Adeolokun trained with the Leinster under-19s in the summer of 2009 after leaving school. But a week before the interpros, he was cut from the squad, and it cut deeply, although he’s the first to admit he was a little too laid back for his own good then. “I was surprised how much it hurt me. I suddenly realised how much I wanted to play rugby, and be a professional rugby player.”
Adeolokun resolved to fight his way back into the Leinster system. Soon after, Balfe was in touch with Tony Smeeth, who invited him up to Trinity while he was studying business and event management in DIT. “The standard at the training sessions was better than anything I’d known and I began working in the gym for the first time. Playing for Trinity for four years was the reason why I’m here now.”
He went to the gym most mornings before college, then trained on in the afternoon. “I became a lot more dedicated and most of the guys in the team had played under-age with Leinster. Training and playing with good players pushes you, and they play good rugby as well.”
No less than Balfe, he owes Smeeth a lot. “He is Mr Rugby. He is so enthusiastic, and he could talk about rugby for hours.”
He credits Smeeth with transforming his attitude.
“He compared me to [Takudzwa] Ngwenya,” says Adeolokun in reference to the Zimbabwe-born, one-time Biarritz winger, whom Smeeth coached with the USA Eagles backline.
“The biggest problem I had then was confidence. Tony kept telling me to back my speed and take on players on the outside. I’d come inside because I didn’t trust my speed. He worked on my confidence to do that and yeah, a lot of credit goes to Tony for that,” he admits, smiling again.
Adeolokun still regularly asked Smeeth to mention him in dispatches to the province’s coaching hierarchy. “I just wanted another chance and I did play one or two development games, but I felt like I was there to make up the numbers.”
Adeolokun and Smeeth, coach, mentor and then his de facto agent, agreed that in 2014 it was time to move on. Smeeth helped him put together a video clip to tout his ability to French and English clubs, whereupon Connacht contacted him.
Nigel Carolan had also been sent the video and Connacht invited Adeolokun to a mini trial, incorporating a Connacht Eagles’ game against Russian side Enisei-STM in April 2014. Eagle-eyed Connacht indeed! After one day’s training with the entire squad, on a sunny midweek day in the Sportsground, Connacht ran up a half-century, although Adeolokun wasn’t amongst the try scorers.
“Even though I had a decent CV by then, I was still shocked and thinking ‘How did I get here?’ I was just trying to keep up with everyone to be honest. After that game Pat [Lam] came up to me and invited me into his office. I couldn’t believe it.
“He asked me ‘what are your plans? Do you want to come and play for Connacht for a year and see how it goes?’” Adeolokun didn’t hesitate to sign up. By November of the ensuing 2014-15 season, he’d been offered a two-year full contract to 2017.
Injuries hampered his progress last season and this season limited him to a belated first league start on St Stephen’s Day at home to Ulster, since when Adeolokun has started in 13 matches.
With his work enthusiastic work ethic, his catching and passing skills have further improved, and he has become one of Connacht’s most effective players in contact, excellent at presenting the ball.
He has become very effective in the air, and has even added something of a kicking game – witness his chip for Kieran Marmion’s match-winning try against Leinster.
Spindly by nature, he bulked up through regular morning gym sessions with Trinity, putting on four or five kilograms.
“I was very skinny.” Even so when he first weighed in at Connacht, he was 78.6kg. He’s now 90kg. And then there’s speed. An innately engaging, smiling and chirpy lad, you ask him how fast he is and he seems genuinely unsure. “I think my fastest is 1.56 over 10 metres.”
So who’s quicker, him or Matt Healy? “I’d say Matt Healy, even though time-wise it might be me, but Matt is electric. We’ve different types of speed. He’s just dynamic off the mark, whereas I’ve got long legs.”
After scoring five tries in his first 26 games, they suddenly began to flow, with a brace apiece on successive weekends against Grenoble and Munster.
“I feel a bit embarrassed about that, because when ‘Heals’ makes a break all I have to do is make sure I stick with him,” he says of Healy, creator in chief of Adeolokun’s two tries against Grenoble. “Hopefully I can pay him back.”
That form helped him win Connacht’s player of the month for April and when he’s asked about his own ambitions of playing for Ireland, the first pauses of the interview comes. “I’m the type of player that’s very focused. I don’t want to get too carried away. I think ‘Heals’ is fantastic and I genuinely hope he does go on the South African tour. Right now I just want to focus on hopefully getting picked for Connacht, doing as best as I can. That’s as good as it gets for me right now.”
Niyi Adeolokun is in a pretty good place too. He’s found his home.