‘That’s all I knew, the area I lived in wasn’t the most affluent area’

KEEP AN EYE out for Cormac Izuchukwu off the Ulster bench tonight.

The 21-year-old academy lock is in line for his third senior appearance against Leinster and, rather remarkably, that would still leave Izuchukwu short of 20 games in the second row in his entire life.

He played there for the first time in the summer of 2018, having convinced a small-town club in Scotland that he was a second row. Up until that point, the Offaly man had been a back but a growth spurt meant he could point to his 6ft 7ins frame when stating his credentials.

Izuchukwu has been through the Ireland 7s programme since and his unique journey has led him to Ulster, where he’s already featuring for Dan McFarland’s side less than a year after joining the province’s academy.

“As much as I’m proud of the journey, I’m really excited about how much more I can do and learn,” says Izuchukwu.

Born in London to a Nigerian father and Irish mother, he moved to Offaly with his mum and siblings, Chinnie and Ciara, when he was eight. They were briefly based in his mother’s hometown of Kilcormac before shifting into Tullamore.

“It was a big shock coming to Ireland and obviously being mixed race adds to it,” says Izuchukwu – who is known as ‘Izzy’ by his friends and team-mates. 

His mother, Catriona, is related to Offaly hurling legends Joe, Johnny, and Billy Dooley, meaning Izuchukwu played plenty of GAA in his youth and was good enough to feature in Offaly U14 development squads in hurling and football.

There was no TV or Wifi in their house but Izuchukwu never really noticed until he had grown up and people would ask him if he had seen certain movies or TV series.

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“My biggest misconception when I was younger was thinking we were quite poor because we didn’t have that stuff, but my mother never valued it,” he explains.

“She valued education and put all that money into me playing the piano or into fixing up the car so we could go to training, things like that. I didn’t have a phone until I was 15 or 16 but that’s all I knew and the area I lived in wasn’t the most affluent area so lots of the kids around me were the same.” 

Izuchukwu made his senior Ulster debut last month. Source: Craig Watson/INPHO

Izuchukwu played every sport he had access to, including rugby with Tullamore RFC and athletics with Tullamore Harriers, but admits to struggling in school. He was, in his own words and to his regret, “trouble” for his teachers. 

His older brother, Chinnie, was something of a model student and also competed for Ireland in athletics, earning a scholarship to UCD. On top of the achievements – he has recently been producing music under the moniker Chinnie Izzie – he was a big influence on Cormac.

“Growing up without a dad, he obviously had to stand in, walk me to school, pick me up if I got in trouble, help me with my homework. It’s a special bond and I respect him hugely.”

With Cormac struggling to keep his head down, his mother decided a fresh start would help and moved him from Coláiste Choilm to boarding school in Roscrea College after his Junior Cert. 

“She was working full-time and single-parenting,” says Izuchukwu. “She just wanted me to get an education and a good Leaving Cert but unfortunately for her, I found rugby and here I am now and still not in college!

“But I can’t say enough about how amazing she has been. She doesn’t know a lot about rugby and doesn’t like it too much, she thinks I’m getting hurt, but she watches the game and just tells me I did a good job.”

Izuchukwu loved the rugby training in Roscrea, although he was gutted to learn of the rule that means students who have changed schools can’t play for the first team for 20 months.

Initially joining the school as a 62kg winger, Izuchukwu had filled out and vastly improved his skills by the time he was in sixth year, starting in the centre for Roscrea as they were knocked out of the Leinster Schools Senior Cup quarter-finals, that team also including Munster’s Josh Wycherley and Leinster’s Michael Milne. 

Izuchukwu was invited to a testing day for the Connacht U19s but injured his ankle shortly beforehand. So, while he had the bug for rugby, he left school without being picked up by the pipeline that leads onto the professional game.

Back home in Tullamore that summer of 2018, Izuchukwu was working in a local bar and training at the rugby club when he was struck by a brainwave.

“I got this idea of travelling around the world playing for small clubs for the next five or 10 years,” he explains. “I viewed rugby as a passport to travel around and I knew one or two guys online who had done that, travelling to New Zealand, America, places like that with clubs sorting out work visas.”

The Tullamore man was a centre in Roscrea. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Izuchukwu was alerted to Kelso RFC’s need for a second row and emailed them, leading to his move to a town of a few thousand people in the Scottish Borders at the age of 18.

He went over with only a few quid in his pocket, mistakenly thinking the club would pay him for playing. After team-mates and coaches helped him out with dinners initially, Izuchukwu soon got a part-time job in Sainsbury’s.

He also had to get to grips with playing in the second row but counts himself lucky that Kelso’s head coach, a Kiwi named Gary Stevens who had previously worked with James Lowe, took him under his wing and told him he had the potential to make it.

Izuchukwu made a flying start for Kelso in the second division of Scottish amateur club rugby and Stevens helped him to put together a compilation of his best video clips from games, encouraging him to get in contact with professional clubs. The Tullamore man spent some time with the Newcastle Falcons but was hampered by an ankle injury.

“I’m quite eccentric in some ways and that was one of the two times I was emailing 40 or 50 clubs with my highlights. 

“Gary was leaving the club at the time and that was a huge blow for me but he told me he had emailed someone in the IRFU that he knew from his time in New Zealand.”

That someone was Wayne Mitchell, the union’s national talent coordinator and having seen Izuchukwu’s clips, he was instantly on the phone to head office. Within 24 hours, IRFU performance director David Nucifora called Izuchukwu asking if he was interested in coming home and the union’s director of 7s rugby, Anthony Eddy, followed up with the offer of a sevens contract. 

Just five months after leaving for Scotland, Izuchukwu was back in a Dublin hotel getting ready for Ireland 7s training. It was brutal for the first few months as he ran and lifted weights every day to get in shape, going from 116kg all the way down to 103kg.

Izuchukwu had another steep learning curve around his skills and reading of the game. He credits the likes of Billy Dardis and Harry McNulty for being patient in helping him with extra reps after training sessions and the hard work paid off when Izuchukwu was picked for the Paris 7s on the World Series in May 2019.

“I had never played a 7s game in my life, only in training! It was a huge step for me and one of the highlights of my career.

“We flew out, staying in the hotel with lads I would have looked up to when I was in school – Cecil Afrika, Jerry Tuwai, huge names – getting to see them and play Fifa and ping pong with them in the hotel and then play against them.”

There were further involvements with the Ireland 7s but Izuchukwu knew from early on that he wasn’t destined to stay in the seven-man code for too long, with his height meaning he found it difficult to deal with the smaller sidesteppers. 

He took to Instagram and sent his clips to clubs all over the world again, getting replies from Ulster and Ospreys, but Eddy convinced him to stay with the 7s programme for a little longer, also promising that the IRFU would get him involved in the Ireland U20s set-up in 15s.

Izuchukwu showed his potential in 7s rugby. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Izuchukwu was part of the wider Ireland U20s squad in the lead-up to their 2020 campaign and says he learned lots from watching the likes of Thomas Ahern and Brian Deeny go about their business.

At this stage, Izuchukwu was determined to give 15s a genuine crack and wanted to nail down a contract, linking up with Arthur Gleeson Sports Management to represent him.

“I didn’t quite know where I was going and had been freewheeling it since 2018. They just helped me to see what I had on offer, where I could go. They got in touch with Ulster and it was March or April of last year that I got the chance to come up here and I’ve been enjoying it so far.”

He has had to learn very quickly, particularly at set-piece time.

“When I first came in, I didn’t really know how to jump in a lineout properly. It was a huge struggle at the start. I’ve been doing hours of study every night, walking through it, I always have my notebook out writing down what certain calls mean.

“Even apart from that, it’s the maul sets. I had never really been in a maul properly before coming out of school. You’re in the deep end.”

But Izuchukwu is swimming and made his senior debut off the bench against Glasgow last month before another sub appearance last weekend versus the Ospreys.

He credits academy coach Jonny Graham, among others, with helping him to get up to scratch since arriving and has recently been able to show some of the unique skills he possesses, including a talent for offloading.

“I loved Fijian rugby growing up, how they played, how they expressed themselves,” says Izuchukwu. “Leone Nakarawa would have been one of my idols growing up so it’s going to be enormous getting to see him here next year.”

Ulster fans might be every bit as excited about Izuchukwu at that stage.

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