INTERVIEW: Offaly's newest rugby star gears up for Ulster challenge

Kevin Corrigan

Reporter:

Kevin Corrigan

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news@offalyexpress.ie

INTERVIEW: Offaly's newest rugby star gears up for Ulster challenge

Cormac Izuchukwu presenting his Ireland 7s jersey to Tullamore Rugby Club president Mick Gunning

His life path has been anything but straightforward, his journey rocky with plenty of ups and downs but a multi-talented Tullamore sportsman, Cormac Izuchukwu now finds himself on the verge of a professional rugby career and all the potential that this entails.

Just 20 years of age, Izuchukwu has signed on for the Ulster rugby senior academy and will commence training with them in the next few weeks. The academy is a stepping stone to a full time contract with Ulster, European Cup rugby and the ultimate, international rugby. All of that, however, is down the road, far from inevitable and Izuchukwu, known fondly is Izzy, is focussed on the process, learning his trade and being the best that he can be. Above all, he wants to enjoy himself, to have fun playing rugby and he says that this is his main objective at the moment, not earning money or a living from the game.

As a full time academy member, Izuchukwu is re-locating to Belfast and just last week, he received the news that he will be renting a house in Belfast with three other members of the squad – this is something he is really looking forward to, getting to know new people and living in that healthy athletic environment where the focus is on training hard, learning and living the lifestyle of a professional, recovering, resting and eating correctly.

It won’t be easy and money will be tight as he tries to see where life takes him. He will receive some living expenses in the academy but life will be far from extravagant as he tries to fulfil his dreams. He was studying human resources in the Dublin Institute of Technology but has opted out of that and he hopes to get a course in Belfast, though rugby is his immediate focus. He knows that within a couple of years, his likely life path will become clearer and he will know if he will make it in the professional rugby game or have to pursue a degree and career in another area.

He may be only twenty years of age but already his story is a heart warming and extraordinary one. He describes himself as a “mixed race” man, grew up in London initially before moving to his mother’s home town of Kilcormac and then Tullamore. In Tullamore, he describes himself as a true “townie”, one who immersed himself in several sports before rugby gradually became his one of choice. He has experienced ups and downs in sport, moments of real self doubt but now has his heart set on fulfilling his potential, whatever time proves that to be.

Cormac left London just before his eighth birthday with his mother Catriona Dooley, his brother Chinnie and sister Ciara. They lived in east London, not far from the stadium of West Ham United Soccer Club but his memories of those formative years are fairly sparse and he doesn’t recall much of a sporting involvement in London. His mother Catriona is a Dooley from the centre of Kilcormac and they initially moved there to live with his granny, Rita Dooley for a couple of months before they relocated to Tullamore, getting a house in Hophill before moving to a new one just off the Clonminch Road.

His grandfather Sean Dooley died when his mother was just fifteen years of age but he has great respect and time for his grandmother and the positive role she has played in their life, bringing them to sports events and helping out when his mother was working throughout their youth. “She is flying it, she is a big age now. She had a huge role in raising me before I went to Roscrea. My mother is a single parent and it was tough on her. Granny did so much for me, bringing me to training and games.”

They are related to Offaly hurling folk heroes, Johnny, Joe and Billy Dooley and a young Cormac looked up to Joe’s son, Offaly hurling star Shane Dooley during his young years. “I followed the GAA and wanted to be a role model like him,” he said. He speaks glowingly of his time in Tullamore, though he did encounter some isolated racist incidents there over the years. “I had such a great time in Tullamore, I loved it true and true, I am a real townie,” he smiled.

His father, Okwute Izuchukwu hasn’t played much of a role in their lifes after him and his mother split up. “He never had huge interest in us and our mother raised us,” he declared. A young Izuchukwu particularly embraced the sporting options in Tullamore. He played football and hurling, featuring on Offaly U-14 development squads in both codes, ran to a high level, basketball, pitch and putt, rugby. He didn’t play much soccer mainly for the reason that their pitch in Leah Victoria Park was too far across town from his Hophill and then Clonminch homes for him.

He initially went to Scoil Bhride and then Colaiste Choilm in Tullamore where he featured on a very good basketball team that won midland titles – he went to Cistercian College in Roscrea as a boarder for his Leaving Certificate. He was devoted to athletics firstly as he followed in the footsteps of older brother Chinnie who was an outstanding teenage athletics performer with real potential before drifting away from the sport as he went to college and began to hone in on an interest in music and rapping.

“Whatever we do, we want to be happy doing and he is happy with rapping and his life,” Cormac explained. He won a national 600 metres title at U-11 and was developing into an outstanding 800 metre runner, training with Killeigh man Mark Milner who has since competed in the national senior 800m final as well as winning a whole host of national juvenile titles, and also excelled at cross country.

He loved his time in Tullamore GAA Club and while he enjoyed hurling and played on the county U-14 development squad for one year, he had a preference for football. He was training or playing matches six days a week at this time, also throwing in rounds of pitch and putt into a very busy mix. He joined Tullamore Rugby Club at nine years of age but it wasn’t his sporting priority for a few years and it was far from certain that he would pursue the game.

“Athletics was the only sport I stuck with the whole way through those years (9 to 15). GAA, pitch and putt, basketball, all came and went. It was only when I went to Roscrea (Cistercian College) at 15/16 that I really concentrated on rugby.

“My mother always put pressure on us to play GAA because it was in our family blood. There is nothing better than playing for your county and I loved it. I played football longer than hurling, I was two years on the Offaly football squad. Ger Plunkett from Na Fianna is one of my very good friends and we had great craic there.”

Looking back on it now, he is very appreciative of the role Tullamore Rugby Club have had on his life, even though he only played with them for a short few years and didn’t play for them after switching to boarding in Cistercian College in Roscrea for transition year after completing his Junior Certificate in Colaiste Choilm, Tullamore.

“There is such a good rugby environment in Tullamore. Rugby is such a hard game to take up and I had to learnt so much there but there is such a good culture in Tullamore. I was not the best on the team and I never won player of the year. I was purely trying to balance all the spoprts. I was playing rugby quite early, I played U-11s when 9 and I really loved it. From the first day I played it, I always loved it. Getting stuck in and everything about it.”

For a few years, it looked like he would choose athletics but gradually the intense training required and trying to juggle it with other sports saw him drop it. “Mark Milner was my training partner. The training he does is ridiculous. Trying to do that and playing GAA and football was counter productive. I was playing rugby and trying to put on size but you can’t put on weight for running. I stuck with rugby and football in third year and had exams then.”

He made a midlands rugby squad while in third year and this whetted his appetite for more as he revelled in the training and camaraderie.

Life was soon to change again. He found school hard and often ended up in trouble in Colasite Choilm. He recalls a conversation with a teacher who told him that as good as sport is, he needed to sit down and do some work as well. He enjoyed his time in Colaiste Choilm. “It is a fabulous school and I made great friends there but I was getting into a small bit of trouble and I decided to go to Roscrea.”

That was a huge life changing decision as he learnt some invaluable life lessons while he also went to a school with a huge rugby playing tradition and who competed in the Leinster Schools Senior Cup competition, the holy grail of schools’ rugby in Ireland – they famously won the competition in 2015, before Cormac's arrival there.

“In Tullamore everyone is cut from the same cloth but here I was mixing with lads from Cork, May, Dublin all over. Different personalities. I had to learn to be a bit softer with some lads, who can offend easily. We were living in a dorm, one big room and I could hear lads snoring from the far side.”

He found it hard to settle and sleep in the early weeks but soon adapted. “I made friends for life there and in any part of the country, I will always have a place to stay”, he pointed out. He liked the routine, the early wake up call, visit from the house master, morning prayers, breakfast, school, relaxation time, training, dinner, study. “Every day was very planned out for you. That was the biggest change for me. In Tullamore, I never thought of the importance of study, structure. I had a great time and I would highly recommend boarding, not just for rugby but to become a better man and study. I learnt so much.”

He did get one big shock to his system after going to Roscrea when he discovered a rule that you had to be in the school for twenty months before you could play rugby for their firsts side – Roscrea’s central location in Ireland meant that it was easy for them to attract players from Leinster, Munster and Connacht and the rule was a means to stop them cherry picking the best talent.

Izuchukwu admits that he wasn’t good enough to make the senior side in his first year there in transition year but he feels he was playing well enough in fifth year but wasn’t allowed. As a result he played hurling as well as playing rugby with their seconds team as they made their final. Tullamore Rugby Club were a great help to him in his period – even though he could no longer play for them, they allowed him to use their gym, keeping in contact, and supporting him. He enjoyed watching their games but he was frustrated that he couldn’t play firsts in Cistercian until sixth year. “It was not a fair rule. I was not going
to Roscrea to play rugby, I was going for a fresh start. It was a shock to discover I couldn’t play. Apart from rugby, there is not a lot to do in Roscrea.”

His rugby came on in leaps and bounds in Roscrea as he played with and learnt from players making provincial and international squads. “I was playing with lads who were playing for Ireland U-18s. I never dreamt of that level and it gave me a real boost and confidence.”

When he did make the senior squad, they reached the quarter-final of the Leinster Senior Cup, losing out to St Mary’s in a classic high scoring shootout in a game that he feels they could have won.

At this stage, he played nearly all his rugby in the backs, whether wing or centre as a defensive number 12 or attacking number 13. He spoke about the coaching influence of Kieran Egan in Tullamore Rugby Club. “He put a full emphasis on rugby, how to get stuck in and have fun. I hadn’t a set position and I played all over the back row. I was not that fast but I had good hands from the GAA and I always backed on myself to take on players. I worked on my speed that summer (Leaving Certificate year).”

There were disappointments. He didn’t get selected for trials for the Leinster underage academies and was invited to a screening day for the Connacht U-19s but twisted his ankle and couldn’t go. “I was heartbroken at that, I had such passion for rugby at this stage,” he reflected.

Again, he kept plugging away, gym work in the morning in Tulamore Rugby Club, running in the evening as he trained twice a day. Mixed in with work in the bar in the Bridge House. Then his rugby took another evolution as a friend told him about Kelso Rugby Club in the Scottish borders looking for players. He contacted them on the internet, discovered that they were looking for a second row player and told them that he could play this position. By now he had developed the physical strength and size to play there but still had to adapt to a new game at the fulcrum of the lineout and scrum.

Izuchukwu described Kelso as playing in a higher league than Tullamore but having a similar amateur ethos with very few players paid. It suited him to take time out and he enjoyed his time in Kelso though life did get a bit too manic as he stayed in Scotland for four months. Kelso are a feeder to Melrose in Scotland and he trained with them as well as going across the border to train and play in the Newcastle Falcons academy. It was too much as he was training six days a week, though he learnt a lot from a New Zealander coach, Gary Stevens.

“It really sickened me,” he admitted, adding: “I had to make a decision. It was hard to balance rugby and life and you need a balanced lifestyle.”

Another opportunity opened up when Ireland 7s coach Anthony Eddy invited him to join their squad. Again, he embarked on a steep learning curve, though the presence of a fellow Tullamore man, Jordan Conroy was a great help. Conroy, also a graduate of the Tullamore Rugby Club and a similarly multi-talented sports man who also excelled in athletics and soccer, has emerged as one of the star players in the sevens game and Izuchukwu really looked up to him.

“Jordan is such a phenomenal player. He was senior when I was playing in Tullamore and he was a real inspiration. I tried to watch and copy him and it was great to see him playing at the top level. He is one of the best sevens players in the world. He is mixed race like myself and I really admire and like him. I remember pictures of him on the wall in Scoil Bhride. People would ask me if he was my brother!”

Yet the sevens game was no bed of roses for Cormac. At 6 feet seven inches and 17 stone, he was more suited to the full fifteen a-side game but he learnt a lot from the experience. He played in the Paris 7s in the World Series and had what he described as the best weekend of his life as he got to see the Eiffel Tower and all of the French capital’s special sights. They played against some of the best 7s players in the world and he also played in tournaments in Spain, Dubai and Poland but he soon faced up to the realisation that this wasn’t the game for him.

“I struggled,” he candidly admitted. “It was a wake up call for me. As all right as I did in Paris, I didn’t play a lot. I was getting seven, ten minutes a game. I was playing with their second team. It is a very different game from 15 a-side and I realised I was a bit too big for sevens. I knew nothing about sevens rugby. The difference between fifteen a-side and sevens is like someone in soccer taking up gaelic football. Sevens is a very simplified sport.”

He contacted Mike Black in Ulster rugby seeking a chance but nothing came out of it and his next opportunity came with Ireland U-20s. Here he benefitted from the input of men such as Colm Tucker and Shane Campbell, though he found the re-introduction to full rugby difficult. “I struggled, I was not really big enough and fast enough and I had so much to learn about the forwards. I didn’t get picked and I looked at what was needed, learnt lineouts, set pieces, the mauls.”

Eventually, he was pulled aside and told that he was really improving as well as developing physically. “Colm Tucker did so much work with me on lineouts, jumping, scrumming. I was one of the only forwards on the sevens side. I knew I had it for 15s, I learnt my stuff and hopefully I will bring that to Ulster.”

He is deeply appreciative of his time with the U-20s, even though he “struggled” and didn’t get capped.

“I like to think that if I went on, I would have but the boys were so good there. In Kelso it was not a huge deal to move from the back to second row. They were amateur and I could catch the ball and run. It was only with the U-20s I realised how far behind I was and I am really looking forward to learning more in Ulster.”

He was asked about his future ambitions. “I would love to make a career out of it. I am not one of the lads who is a huge money grabber. I enjoy playing rugby and having fun. I was so big for the sevens, it was hard to do what the boys were doing. I am really competitive and only have fun when I know I am the best at what I am doing. I will get stuck in and see where it goes. I have no huge expectations of anyone but myself. I would not be going up there if I didn’t think I could make it the whole way. “

Izuchukwu was keen to stress his thanks to Tullamore Rugby Club and was delighted to present them with an Irish sevens jersey last week. “Hopefully other people will see that and that it is not so hard to get into an academy,” he said.

He also speaks glowingly about his time in Tullamore, though he did encounter some racism. One incident that stuck with him was when a car load of people pulled up to abuse him while he was walking over the railway bridge at Clonminch at nine years of age. “They were calling me the N word and saying go back to the zoo. I was only nine or ten. I had nowhere to run or hide. At 9 years of age, you can’t fight back. I have got bits of pieces of it, people crossing the street and that type of stuff.

“I’ve nothing but the highest regard for Tullamore. I have had such good times there. Sometimes when a team is losing a match, lads will try and say something to hurt you but apart from that one time on the bridge, there hasn’t been much out and out racism. I hope the attention on racism at the moment is not a two or three week thing and will last for a lifetime. Most people will respect you for who I am.”

He recounts funny stories with Benny Deegan, a local farmer and working with him as a young lad, travelling all over the midlands buying or looking at horses. “He would tell people I was his son and we would watch their reaction,” he smiled. “I could count on my hands the number of times racism happened, it was not a huge deal but it did happen. It was quite hard. My mother is white and I would talk to my brother Chinnie and sister Ciara (an actuary student) about it.”

Moving to the Ulster academy opens up a potential pathway to professional rugby and perhaps international recognition “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to play for Ireland and Ulster seniors but I just want to play rugby as long as I can. After a couple of years, money will be the breaking point and I will have to decide if I am going to have a career making rugby or get a degree but for the moment, once I am having fun and can pay my way, I will be happy.”