Cormac Izuchukwu recently spoke to IrishRugby.ie’s Ryan Bailey about his rugby pathway, his influences and how he came to link up with the Abbey Insurance Ulster Academy.
Cormac Izuchukwu doesn’t want to forget anyone. Even after our call, another name comes to mind. A flashback to his early years in London, or his childhood in Offaly, or an extra training session in Cistercian College Roscrea. Each person as important as the next in his rugby journey, not just from Tullamore RFC to the Ireland Sevens programme and now the Ulster Academy, but for the part – however small – they have played in his life.
Although just 20, Izuchukwu – known affectionately as ‘Izzy’ to team-mates and friends – has travelled an extraordinary path, his career chart already illustrating a series of peaks and troughs. In many ways, he has taken the road less travelled and, for many reasons, that is why Izuchukwu feels it imperative he acknowledges everyone who has guided, mentored and kept him on the straight and narrow down through the years.
Equally, the towering 6ft 7in Ireland Sevens international sees it as his duty to be an example to others. To those, like him, who do not come from traditional rugby playing backgrounds, or to those, like him, who have been knocked back in pursuit of their dream. Izuchukwu will next season join the Ulster Academy, and the very fact he has rebounded from disappointment and setbacks to get to where he wants to be, is a lesson for any young player in itself.
“It has been a weird journey,” he tells IrishRugby.ie. “But I wouldn’t change any of it. I’d go back and do it all again because the last 20 years have made me the person I am today. I’ve made mistakes, learned lessons and worked hard along the way and there’s no way I’d change any of it.”
To chart Izuchukwu’s rise, it is important to begin at the start.
Born in London, he spent the first seven years of his life in England before moving to Kilcormac – his mother’s hometown – alongside his older brother and sister, Chinnie and Ciara. His family are steeped in GAA tradition, he explains, and growing up in Offaly meant Izuchukwu’s earliest sporting memories of are playing Gaelic football and hurling.
“My mother is a Dooley, they’re a big GAA family in Offaly,” he explains. “So my roots would be in GAA and it would have been a big part of growing up but I would have played pretty much every sport. I had a lot of energy as a kid and we didn’t have a TV at home or WiFi so my mother would have sent me out to play sports to keep me occupied.”
Rugby came later, but between Gaelic football, hurling, basketball, football and athletics, Izuchukwu excelled across a number of sports. He recalls winning an All-Ireland Cross Country title with Tullamore Harriers and playing underage Gaelic football for Offaly, his athleticism, power and innate speed marking him out as a multi-talented athlete to watch, both on the pitch and on the track.
While sport – whether it was with an oval or round ball in hand, or over 600 and 800 metres – came naturally to Izuchukwu, he found school work a much tougher exercise. He spent the first three years of secondary education in nearby Coláiste Choilm, before moving to Roscrea where he would spend fourth, fifth and sixth year boarding.
“Looking back now, that’s when a lot changed for me,” the 20-year-old says. “It was a new school and a fresh start. I wouldn’t have studied a lot at all or been focused on academics but going to boarding school like that, it really focused my mind. There’s no way you can get around it or dodge study or training. It was great for me as a person and that’s even before you consider how good it was for my rugby.”
As a full-time boarder 50 kilometres from home, rugby became Izuchukwu’s sole sporting focus in his late teens. Roscrea, the 2015 Leinster Senior Schools Cup winners, is a renowned rugby nursery and the traits instilled in pupils both as students and young rugby players helped change and ultimately shape his mindset. Discipline, diligence and hard work became part of Izuchuwku’s lexicon.
“I kind of used to think rugby was just a hobby for me,” he continues. “But in Roscrea it became something much more. You become so invested in it and are taught the value of team work and being part of a team. It was such a big step up for me because I’d never been exposed to that level before but it was exactly what I needed. I had to work hard to keep up.
“And the level of coaching was class too. Alan Tynan and Pieter Swanepoel had a big influence as coaches and even playing alongside the likes of Michael Milne and Josh Wycherley, you learn so much. We had a good team but unfortunately didn’t get past the quarter-finals when I was in sixth year. But I think the most important thing for me was what I learned in Roscrea. It wasn’t just how to play rugby but the people there helped change my attitude and motivation.”
Izuchukwu played in the centre for Roscrea but his height – he shot up five inches one summer – would see him make the natural transition into the second row after school. By sixth year, he had been identified by Connacht and was invited for an Under-19 screening day in Galway, but just a week beforehand he twisted his ankle playing tag.
“I was pretty down about it,” he recalls. “That summer I decided I wanted to go away and play rugby because, at that stage, I felt I had missed my chance. I was gutted to miss that Connacht Under-19 screening day and found it hard to see other lads in my year or my age play representative rugby that summer when I was injured. I took a year out of college and went over to Scotland to play for Kelso RFC for just under five months.”
While it wasn’t the route he had envisaged going down, Izuchuwku – at the age of 18 – upped sticks and moved to a small town in the Scottish Borders. Although disheartened, he was not deterred and was determined to continue his development by playing as much rugby as possible.
“Playing week in, week out really stood to me. I was always quite aggressive and strong and playing in Scotland for a short period really toughened me up physically and there was a coach there called Gary Stevens, he was from New Zealand. He took me under his wing and has been a kind of a mentor to me. He taught me a lot and definitely introduced me to a new level of professionalism during my time there. Just small things around preparation and attitudes.”
So focused on making the most of his talent and earning the opportunity he craved, Izuchukwu worked tirelessly in a bid to prove himself. In a YouTube video titled ‘Cormac Izuchukwu 5 game highlights’, the 17 stone forward can be seen running over and through opposition defences, showing superb skill and dexterity with ball in hand and also displaying an evolving rugby intellect through his line-out and set-piece work. On closer inspection, the video was uploaded by ‘Cormac Izzy’, further underlining his sense of purpose.
His performances and impact at Kelso weren’t going unnoticed and five months after moving to Scotland, Izuchukwu was making the return journey home having received a call from Anthony Eddy, the IRFU Director of Women’s and Sevens Rugby. With a unique skillset and impressive physical attributes, here was a player with immense potential.
“The first thing I had to do was get in shape,” he explains. “Sevens is obviously a completely different challenge and, to be honest, my first couple of months with the Sevens squad was a struggle. I worked closely with Allan Temple-Jones [Ireland Sevens Head of Athletic Performance] to try and get up to speed but it took time. My body wasn’t used to that level either so I started picking up a couple of injuries. That was tough because I spent nearly two months just running.
“And even on the rugby side, guys like Billy Dardis helped me so much. He would stay back after training to work on skills, things like passing and catch pass. The lads in the Sevens programme, between players and coaches, have done so much for me because at the start I was very raw and probably a lot of hard work. They’re a great bunch of people and I’m so thankful for how good they’ve been to me.”
As Izuchukwu improved his fitness levels and honed his skills under Eddy and the Ireland Sevens coaches, he earned the opportunity he had been waiting for when selected for the Paris 7s this time last year, marking his debut tournament for the Ireland with a first try against Scotland. It was a special moment for the Tullamore man.
“I was so nervous in the days before,” he recalls. “But you’ve got to back yourself in those circumstances and I just kept telling myself I had worked hard for this and I was there on merit. I wanted to do myself justice and more than anything do my team-mates, who had helped me so much, justice. It was an unreal experience, probably my best day in rugby so far and gave me a taste of it.”
Izuchukwu, who has just recently finished his first year of a Human Resource Management degree from TU Dublin, also impressed at the inaugural RugbyX tournament in London last October, finishing the day-long tournament as the top try-scorer as Eddy’s side finished second, and was then selected to travel to Spain for the annual Elche 7s and to Dubai as part of the Ireland Development team before Christmas.
On the back of his performances in the seven-a-side game for Ireland and continued development in the XVs game through his work with the Ireland Under-20s, and in particular Colm Tucker, there is huge excitement over Izuchukwu’s potential and certainly last week’s announcement is another significant marker in his career.
“I’m obviously delighted and really looking forward to getting up to Belfast,” he adds. “But I know I haven’t really achieved anything yet, this is just a stepping stone and I’ve got to get stuck in and work hard. I have a lot of hard work ahead of me. I’ve got this opportunity but I need to treat every day as I have before – work really hard, take nothing for granted and try and learn along the way. If I trust the system and myself then hopefully, God willing, I’ll be able to see the reward.
“Above everything, I just want to do myself proud and do everyone who has helped me along the way proud. My brother and sister have been huge inspirations to me and they’ve probably had the biggest impact on me as a person but there have been so many people who have helped me out, and in particular Anthony Eddy for giving me the chance to play Sevens.”
“Being in the programme and spending every day around brilliant players at the IRFU High Performance Centre has been a huge driver in my development and I’m really grateful for that and hopefully I can continue to develop in that environment.
“But without Ciaran Egan I probably wouldn’t even still be playing rugby because he coached me in Tullamore RFC from a young age and not only that but he used to come and pick me up from my house to bring me to training and matches when my Mam was busy dropping my brother and sister elsewhere. I had to give him a special mention as he did so much for me, going above and beyond his role as a coach.”
Izuchukwu was determined not to forget anyone, each coach and mentor having played their part in this, the first chapter, of his career. But you get the sense that this is only just the start of his rugby journey and there’s a lot more to be written in the years to come.
Ryan Bailey, IrishRugby.ie