There was a time, not so long ago, when the paths were not quite aligning for Cormac Izuchukwu. Through no shortage of hard work or ambition, a series of disappointing setbacks and luckless injuries prevented the pieces falling into place for the 20-year-old. But sometimes the road less travelled leads you the right way, even if you don’t realise it at the time, and in Izuchukwu’s case, the IRFU High Performance Pathway ensured the signposts all pointed in the right direction.
Shortly before the hour mark of Ulster’s recent Guinness PRO14 victory at Glasgow Warriors, the towering 6ft 7in second row was sprung from the bench by Dan McFarland to make his senior debut, marking the culmination of his journey from Tullamore RFC to the professional game, and once again highlighting the importance of a system that identified, supported, and guided a young player along the pathway.
While Izuchukwu’s meteoric rise in the space of just three years is a brilliant story, it is not unique to him and no doubt serves as a reminder and inspiration to young players whose starting point on the journey is not so orthodox. The pathway is not always a pre-determined route and gaining a foothold in professional rugby can be done in more ways than one, with the success of the Ireland Under-20s and Ireland Sevens programmes in developing players testament to the structures in place.
Izuchukwu’s rise is illustrative of that and his debut appearance for Ulster last month, followed shortly by another encouraging cameo in the Province’s recent victory over Ospreys, were significant junctures in his journey from Tullamore RFC to the Ireland Sevens programme and now Kingspan Stadium, via London, Roscrea and Kelso.
At each staging post, Izuchukwu’s raw potential was recognised. With a unique skillset, impressive physical attributes and an innate hunger to succeed, here was a player with immense promise, if not a little rough around the edges, and through the investment of time, expertise and patience by a number of coaches, Izuchukwu’s development has been hugely exciting.
Wayne Mitchell, the IRFU’s National Talent Coordinator, recalls first catching a glimpse of Izuchukwu in action for Kelso RFC, after the former Cistercian College Roscrea student had transitioned into the second row during a five-month stint in Scotland. There was one particular clip brought to Mitchell’s attention that showed a young 17-stone Irish forward 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 despite his recent positional switch.
“Gary Stevens was Head Coach of Kelso RFC at the time and he shared some recent match footage with me,” Mitchell tells IrishRugby.ie. “What was obvious straight away was Cormac’s potential but, just as importantly, his passion and desire of wanting to play for Ireland. He was a player with clear ambitions of making the most of his talent.”
As soon as Mitchell alerted Anthony Eddy, the IRFU Director of Women’s and Sevens Rugby, to Izuchukwu, he was back in Dublin stepping up his development in the Ireland Men’s Sevens programme within weeks. Izuchukwu improved his fitness levels and honed his skills under Eddy and the Ireland Sevens coaches, before earning the opportunity he had been waiting for when selected for the Paris 7s in May 2019, marking his debut tournament for the Ireland with a first try against Scotland.
“We were immediately interested in Izzy and I was always well aware that the Sevens programme was only a short stay for him in providing for his development as a rugby player,” Eddy explains. “Izzy threw himself into the Sevens programme from the start and made the most of the opportunity provided.”
Ireland Sevens captain Billy Dardis was among those who would spend extra time on the training pitch with Izuchukwu, honing and improving key skills like passing and kick-pass after the group sessions had ended. The Sevens programme provided him with the support, exposure, guidance and development opportunities required to progress. Time in the programme helped sharpen the mind and nourish the ambition.
“Izzy’s skills improved enormously during his time in the programme, and he became a very competent and confident rugby player,” Eddy continues. “It has been great to see him progress and to make his Pro14 debut, just like so many other players who have come through the Sevens programme in recent times. I’m so pleased for Izzy because he has worked hard to achieve his goal and I hope he continues to show that same application going forward as I’ve no doubt he’ll develop further.”
After impressing at the inaugural RugbyX tournament in London in October 2019, finishing the day-long tournament as the top try-scorer as Eddy’s side finished second, Izuchukwu was selected to travel to Spain for the annual Elche 7s and to Dubai as part of the Ireland Development team in December 2019.
While his game-time was limited due to an ankle injury sustained at that tournament, it was in Dubai where Kieran Campbell, the Ulster Academy Manager and recently-appointed Ireland Under-20 Head Coach, first met Izuchukwu. He recalls: “I first connected with Izzy through the Sevens programme when I was undertaking some CPD with Anthony and his team as they prepared for the Dubai tournament.
“It was here I got an opportunity to see Izzy’s obvious athletic talent, his acceleration and balanced running, which for a player of his size, was excellent. He was also receiving very good individual skills coaching from Anthony and the Sevens coaches to develop his core skills, which were essential for Izzy at that point in his development.”
Campbell had the opportunity to work closely with Izuchukwu at Ireland Under-20 training camps in the build-up to last year’s Six Nations campaign, while receiving further instruction from Noel McNamara and Colm Tucker helped the 20-year-old make encouraging progress in a number of respects, most notably in his overall rugby intellect.
“I was able to build a really strong relationship with Izzy when he was in with the Ireland Under-20s,” Campbell explains. “It was clear he had the profile and talent which could make him a very good second row, but there were aspects of his game that required support and Colm Tucker did some really excellent work with Izzy around line-out and set-piece, while I focused on aspects of his defensive and offensive game.”
With an insatiable appetite for betterment, Izuchukwu absorbed all the information thrown his way. Tucker, the Ireland Under-20s Forwards Coach and Elite Player Development Officer at Connacht Rugby, was excited to work with a player who possessed such commitment to improve.
“Izzy always produced really big moments in training through his power and athleticism,” Tucker says. “He could win collisions, generate strong leg-drive and had an ability to free his hands post contact, so there was so much to work with. While Izzy was relatively new to the set-piece – scrum, line-out and mauling – he always wanted to learn and was always asking for one-on-ones. He was continuously asking questions and always threw himself into training with 100% commitment, which is vital for any young player wanting to improve.”
As Izuchukwu’s talent was refined through hard work and the right exposure to top-level coaching, he was offered the chance to continue his journey with Campbell and the Ulster Academy at the start of the 2020/21 season, his career trajectory continuing on an upward trend as he impressed at the IRFU Academy 7s Series and then for Ulster ‘A’ in Inter-Provincial games before Christmas.
“Izzy has been fantastic to work with since joining the Ulster Academy,” Campbell says. “Everyone in the Academy and Senior performance support teams have been impressed with his diligence and importantly his determination to learn and his debut cap was a great reward for his application. Izzy has had excellent support through the IRFU High Performance Pathway and it’s testament to him and everyone involved in his journey that he finds himself here today.
“His success to this point is reflective of the hard work that has been put in with Izzy at the different stages of IRFU High Performance Pathway and hopefully he is able to build now on his debut cap and build a long and successful career with Ulster and Ireland.”
Having phoned Eddy and IRFU Performance Director, David Nucifora, about Izuchukwu’s potential in 2018 and ultimately set him on the pathway, Mitchell has watched the young second row’s progress with a vested interest and no shortage of pride in recent times.
“There’s no doubt the Ireland Men’s Sevens programme played a huge part in Cormac’s development over the years and the achievement of making his senior Provincial debut for Ulster once again shows that every player’s journey is different and unique,” Mitchell adds.
“I think it’s fair to say we’re all looking forward to seeing how Cormac develops in the coming years and I’ve no doubt he’ll continue to fulfil his ambitions.”
Saturday night represents another significant marker for Izuchukwu as he’s named on the Ulster bench for the PRO14 derby fixture against Leinster at Kingspan Stadium, with Ulster Head Coach McFarland particularly impressed with his attitude and mindset.
“Cormac has been a really welcome addition to our Academy,” McFarland says. “It is a great story in that he doesn’t have a huge amount of rugby experience, but he is a great athlete and most importantly, is so hungry to squeeze every drop out of his potential.
“He has shown the group what he is capable of with his power running, big hitting and the rate that he is improving his set-piece. It was great to see him out on the field for the Ulster ‘A’ team and in recent weeks, for the senior team, on the back of the head-down hard work he is putting in off the field and on the training paddock.”
A brilliant story, with many more chapters to be written yet.