It’s Not Easy Being Niyi-zi

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As published in InTouch Magazine, November edition.

There was an old saying I came across before: “It’s six o’clock and there isn’t a cow milked or a child washed.” I’d strongly suspect that it applied throughout Connacht on the morning after last season’s Pro12 final.

Nobody could claim to have been around when Queen Méabh led the warriors of Connacht into battle to claim the most famous bull in Ireland in the Cattle Raid of Cooley. In time, legend will record that it was actually Pat Lam in charge that day.

I remember being aghast at the dinner table as Kerry’s Maurice Fitzgerald split the uprights from the sideline to force a replay with Dublin in the 2001 All-Ireland Quarter-Final. I took a break from work to watch Tony McCoy rally his horse to take the lead yards from the line for his 4,000th career win in 2013. I was still dismissing Dundalk’s chances until Robbie Benson raced clear to secure a 3-0 win over Bate Borisov in the Champions League last August.

These are all moments that have become part of Irish sporting folklore and last May another was added: Where were you when Niyi Adeolokun chipped over the Leinster defence to help seal Connacht’s first ever Pro12 title in Edinburgh and shake up the old provincial order?

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“I’ll never forget it but it hasn’t quite sunk in yet. It’s all a bit surreal,” Adeoloukun admits. “It just felt like any other game though, no different to when I scored for De la Salle or Trinity, but I’m sure that in time when I look back and reflect upon what we did throughout the season, the significance of that moment will hit me.”

Having arrived in Terenure as a 10 year old from Nigeria, Adeolokun’s sudden rise in Irish rugby has taken an unfamiliar route. A talented sportsman, Adeoloukun may have been togging out for Dublin against Mayo had he remained with the Templeogue Synge Steet GAA Club. Shelbourne FC also harboured his talent before his rugby prowess was unearthed.

“Sport was my life. I threw my hand at everything at De la Salle Churchtown – usually to get of class! But when I was cut from Leinster U19 Development squad shortly before the inter-pros began I was more disappointed than I might have imagined. I was about to start 6th year so I made a conscious decision to cut down on everything and focus on my rugby… and studies!”

Lorcan Balfe, Adeolokun’s principal, then brought the speed merchant to the attention of Tony Smeeth, the Director of Rugby at Dublin City University. “I had four brilliant years under Tony but he knew that professional rugby was in my sights. He played his part in making that happen, sending out my highlights reel to a few of his contacts in the game – one even went as far as Bernard Jackman at Grenoble! But it was Nigel Carolan who acted on it and set up a trial at Connacht.”

Niyi Adalukan scores a try 21/5/2011

An opportunity for Adeolokun to showcase his ability was first presented in a game against Russian side Enisei in April 2014. Following a comfortable 54-21 win, Pat Lam wasted little time and invited the winger to join up with the side. “It was a very easy decision to come out west. I would have gone anywhere to play professional rugby but when Connacht expressed an interest I was delighted because it also meant that I could stay in Ireland and remain close to family and friends.”

Within a few weeks of his professional debut, Adeolokun had signed a three-year contract and his momentum continued to build thereafter. His impressive early season form has seen him sign a further extension that will see him remain at the Sportsground until at least the summer of 2019. Furthermore, a long awaited international bow came with the visit of Canada to the Aviva Stadium in November.

While Adeolokun’s personal aspirations are being fulfilled, Connacht’s fortunes hit something of a setback in the early part of the season. With the team languishing in the lower end of the Pro12 table, they faced an uphill battle to return to the heights of last year.

“It was always going to be a hard ask to try and live up to what the championship winning team achieved. We are now the team that everyone wants to beat. But I’m sure that whatever the season brings, Pat is experienced enough to handle it and we can have another successful season at Connacht.

“In any event, regardless of what happens Pat Lam has had a huge influence on all of us. Obviously, he gave me the chance to play at this level but off the pitch he is equally significant. He invests his time in making you a better person and places great emphasis on what is important to you. He knows exactly what makes each player tick and so all any of us want to do is our best for him.”

Once the cows were finally milked and all the children washed, the party continued across the City of the Tribes as the victorious side returned home. But despite the fanfare there was to be no postponing of the Galway Senior Football Championship. Life kicked on, the only difference being that all the youngsters in Pearse Stadium wore the green of their province and cradled a rugby ball. Few would have thought that a boy from the Nigerian town of Ibadan would be instrumental in bringing about that change.

Knocking Concussion on the Head

As published on PunditArena

In September it was announced that Nathan White was retiring from professional rugby based on medical advice following a concussion injury. The Connacht and Ireland prop arrived in Dublin from his native New Zealand in 2012 to join up with Joe Schmidt at Leinster before moving onto Connacht the following year.

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Prior to his injury against his former employers last March, White had established himself as a valued squad member in Schmidt’s Irish squads, garnering 13 caps in the space of eight months following his debut in August 2015. Sadly, he will not be adding to that tally.

The attritional nature of the professional game may be a joy for the public to behold but it has come at a cost. Between 2006 and 2012, Leinster duo Bernard Jackman and John Fogarty were the only professional rugby players to retire through concussion. However, in the past three years alone Craig Clarke, Declan Fitzpatrick, Kevin McLaughlin, David McSharry and now White have all suffered a similar fate.

When this is considered in isolation, it may seem that concussion is far more prevalent in the modern game. However, due to better education on the topic and heightened awareness of its signs and symptoms, players are now more likely than ever to take a sensible approach when dealing with brain injuries.

The rise in players retiring or taking long periods out of the game to recover from head injuries is a direct result of a more accepting culture within the game whereby players feel empowered to make the right decision for their health. Given the consequences of such trauma, rugby can no longer embrace those who make a heroic return to the field following a severe blow to the head. However, steps need to be taken to ensure that players are protected on a weekly basis and over the long term.

Headway, the brain injury services and support organisation, has teamed up with Ireland’s leading player GAA, soccer and rugby unions to launch Concussion Aware, a campaign in association with laya healthcare and LifeStyle Sports. The initiative is being backed by the likes of Irish captain Seamus Coleman, Dublin footballer Johnny Cooper, former Leinster rugby player Luke Fitzgerald and Donegal Ladies footballer Kate Keaney, and encourages coaches and athletes of all levels and ages to put their health to the fore and to remember, “If in doubt, sit it out.”

To get a better understanding of the players’ views on concussion, the Irish Rugby Union’s Players’ Association (IRUPA) has worked on a number of initiatives to determine the best means of further educating its members. Over a 16-month period between 2014 and 2016, the incidents of concussion amongst IRUPA members rose by 3.7%. The common perception may be that the increased physical nature of the sport has been the most significant factor, yet it must also be considered that there is a growing acceptance amongst players and coaching staff that concussion is an injury which needs to be taken seriously.

In an IRUPA survey carried out in October 2014, 13% of players who were concussed admitted that they were not confident that their head injury had cleared when they returned to play. In 2016, the same question was asked of IRUPA members with this number reducing to 10%. Although this figure remains high, it nevertheless represents an improvement of players’ concerns over a short period of time and an unwillingness on their part to take risks when it comes to brain injuries.

Last year, IRUPA in partnership with the IRFU, developed an online training course highlighting the signs, symptoms and effects of concussion. This module was made compulsory for all professional players in Ireland. It was designed to offer the players an interactive learning experience whilst providing real case studies of head injuries and testing their knowledge of the issue with a series of questions. This education tool, allied to World Rugby Concussion Management resource, has helped to provide players with the requisite insight to make informed decisions on the field of play.

In order to establish how effective the education drive had been in the period, IRUPA followed up with direct questions on players’ understanding on Head Injury Assessment (HIA), symptoms of concussion and the Graduated Return to Play Protocols (GRTPPs). The below statistics represent the changes in players’ awareness from the IRUPA surveys carried out in 2014 and 2016:

  • 2% players had a good to excellent understanding of HIA – + 14%.
  • 9% players had an excellent to good understanding symptoms of concussion – + 9.9%.
  • 8% players had a good to excellent understanding of GRTPPs – + 8.8%.

These results provide a direct correlation between the heightened awareness and understanding on the back of educational initiatives. Although it is recognised that knowledge of concussion has progressed amongst its membership, IRUPA continues to look for innovative ways to improve its methods of education to ensure players are making decisions with all the necessary information at their disposal.

As Omar Hassanein, CEO of IRUPA states: “Players must take responsibility to protect their health and well-being even in the heat of the moment. There has been a marked shift in the attitude towards concussion throughout professional rugby, but while we have made progress in raising awareness of the prospective dangers associated with concussion and its long-term effects, there is further ground to be made.”

To that end, the introduction of the Head Injury Assessment and its subsequent introduction into World Rugby’s regulations is seen a huge step in the right direction for the welfare of the players. Whilst this is certainly an improved position, it should also not be the final stance.

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Although there have been significant developments in the area from a professional perspective, there remains plenty of work to be done on the ground level. Speaking at the launch on Tuesday on Grafton Street, Kieran Loughran, CEO of Headway commented: “It’s evident that there is still a huge lack of awareness amongst the general public when it comes to concussion. 1 in 2 of those surveyed as part of our research admit they would not recognise the signs of concussion – this needs to be addressed.”

“It comes down to knowing the signs of concussion and looking after your team-mates and yourself,” Seamus Coleman added. “If a player is concussed, they may be in a confused state so will be relying on their teammates and coach to recognise that something isn’t right. If there is a shadow of a doubt, it’s so vital that they come off the field of play and sit it out. It might sound dramatic but you really could end up saving a player’s sports career, we’ve all seen some of our heroes having to retire early due to the impact of concussion.”

For further information visit http://www.concussionaware.ie and check out the campaign on Headway Ireland’s Facebook where you can download your personalised Concussion Aware frame to show your support.  

Players are also encouraged to show their support of Concussion Aware by wearing uniquely designed elite performance bootlaces, created especially for the campaign, and on sale in LifeStyle stores nationwide and online. 100% of the proceeds will go directly to Headway and to raising further awareness of the dangers of concussion.

A Lyttle Bit Special

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As published in InTouch Magazine (IRUPA), November edition.

As Ulster took to the field against Northampton in their last pre-season fixture, one name was at the tip of everybody’s tongue. Charles Piutau took up his position at fullback and duly whetted the appetite for the season ahead with some nice touches and electric breaks. But while it was a promising start for the All Black, it was the performance of a young winger from Donaghcloney that intrigued the Ulster faithful.

On his first start at the Kingspan stadium, Rob Lyttle’s first piece of action was a delightful sidestep and offload to his Kiwi colleague. Within a few moments Lyttle was demonstrating his defensive prowess, while it was his pass that put Louis Ludik away for the game’s first try. As the youngster sized up the subsequent conversion, Dan Tuohy, commentating for Ulster Rugby remarked that he “didn’t know he [Lyttle] could kick,” to which Tommy Bowe replied: “that boy can do everything.”

Not even a first senior appearance in the opening round of the Guinness Pro12 appeared to faze the youngster. Amidst all the fanfare surrounding Ruen Pienaar, Lyttle emerged from the bench as an early replacement for Craig Gilroy to seize another chance in the senior side with aplomb. In claiming two tries, Lyttle inspired Ulster to a 29-8 victory over Newport Gwent Dragons. Lyttle has since featured in all of Ulster’s Pro12 games to date.

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A former student of Royal Belfast Academical Institution, Lyttle made the controversial decision to move to fierce rivals Methodist College Belfast for his final year of school in 2015. As fate would have it, RBAI ultimately prevailed that year but Lyttle’s star was already on the rise. Progressing through the underage representative ranks, the youngster was inevitably picked up by the Ulster Academy.

At just 18, Lyttle featured prominently in the British and Irish Cup for Ulster ‘A’ last year. Despite his tender years, the quality of his performances saw him drafted in as the 24th man for the Pro12 on several occasions. He was simultaneously to the fore as Queen’s University sought promotion from Division 2A of the Ulster Bank League. Given his form, Lyttle was naturally disappointed not to make the U20 Junior World Championship panel in June. However, the Irish 7’s Development squad duly came calling.

With the likes of Piutau, Bowe, Ludik, Gilroy, Jared Payne, Andrew Trimble, Stuart Olding and Jacob Stockdale all potentially vying for places in the back three, Lyttle faces a stern challenge to become further established at Ulster. But after such a blistering start, he has certainly made his mark.

Up for the Fight

As published on PunditArena

As Tommy Bowe battled his way back from a knee injury he sustained whilst playing against Argentina in last year’s Rugby World Cup, there were times during his rehabilitation that made him think that he had played his last game of rugby. Having picked up four serious injuries in consecutive seasons, Bowe has endured a luckless second stint with his home province.

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Speaking at the Ulster Public Panel Discussion as part of IRUPA’s Tackle Your Feelings campaign, in partnership with Zurich, the Irish winger admitted that having spent so much time on the sidelines, it’s hard not to question whether he would ever get back on the pitch.

“I’ve chatted with Stephen Ferris and Felix Jones about when you’re told that it’s not going to get any better and that’s always the fear. That’s what keeps you up at night.”

Having undergone kidney surgery just prior to his return to Ulster in 2012, Bowe was then dealt a further blow when he picked up a significant knee injury in December of the same year. While Bowe returned to fitness in time to travel with the Lions to Australia the following summer, a broken hand threatened to rule him out of the series. A groin injury sustained in the narrow defeat to New Zealand then forced him to miss the entirety of the 2014 Six Nations.

“This is my 13th season in professional rugby and I’ve found that mental health has become a huge area of concern in sport. Throughout my career I’ve found it difficult to deal with injury, but it’s equally tough when you are dropped or have a bad game.

“The mental side of sport is so huge nowadays, especially as you’re trying to get the best out of people. A lot of it is about being able to perform under pressure in some big, big games but with that come the highs and the lows. It’s important to work at trying to keep yourself on a level playing field, so that you’d don’t go too high when things are going great and you don’t go too low at the other end.”

Also speaking on the evening were IRUPA CEO Omar Hassanein, Dr. Eddie Murphy, Irish Women’s Sevens International Hannah Tyrrell and former Ulster fullback Bryn Cunningham, who was forced to retire early from the game.

Given the macho perception of the sport, people find it difficult to imagine the players dealing with little more than the bumps and bruises. The panel therefore explored the importance of mental wellbeing and how Ireland needs to be more proactive in resolving emotional challenges before they escalate into a crisis. The discussions were another step towards achieving the vision of a society that embraces emotional vulnerability.

“When I was a teenager, I struggled with my own self-confidence,” Tyrrell admits. “I had low self-esteem and a poor body image. I just viewed myself negatively in every aspect. I developed an eating disorder. For some reason I felt that if I were skinnier or prettier, people might like me, or I might perform better in school or in sport.

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A talented soccer player, Tyrrell turned her attentions to Gaelic Football when the Dublin U14 management came calling. Thereafter she progressed through the ranks to the senior side, winning several All-Ireland titles along the way. But beneath her sporting glory, Tyrrell was facing up to a greater challenge.

“I wasn’t very good at communicating my feelings,” Tyrrell explains. “I took everything on myself and in time I began to restrict my food intake, binging and purging before I began to self-harm.”

Having sought help, rugby provided Tyrrell with an outlet to grow, develop and indeed take stock of her experiences.

“I took up rugby in 2013 just after the women had won the Grand Slam. As I was very sporty and ambitious, it was always something that I thought I’d love to try. I was just coming out of my recovery and so I needed it to keep me on the right track and provide another goal to focus on. Rugby aside, the camaraderie I’ve enjoyed and the friends I’ve met means it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

“I’m very thankful I went to rugby training that evening.”

Furlong Chasing Consistency

As published on Pundit Arena

“To be on the line in the third Test pushing for a series victory, only to let it slip away is something that has plagued me all summer. We also had history in our sights with just 20 minutes to go the week before. I have been looking forward to getting it all out of my system for a while now.”

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For Tadhg Furlong, the summer tour to South Africa was a bittersweet experience. Having come off the bench in the momentous victory in Cape Town, Furlong made his full Test debut a week later opposite Tendai Mtawirra.

For much of the encounter, the Beast struggled to contain the Wexford native in what was a clear demonstration of his Test credentials. At just 23, it seems clear that Furlong can look forward to a long future in the Irish front-row.

After what has seemed to be an all too brief off-season, Furlong and his Leinster colleagues kick-off their campaign on Saturday in the unfamiliar surrounds of Navan RFC (3pm).

“It was a relatively quick turnaround but while South Africa was testing it was also a really enjoyable tour in what is a rugby-mad country. We went on historical trips, on safari, got into the water with sharks and embraced the culture. Then there was the boon of representing my country at the weekend – not a bad complaint!

“From a personal perspective I felt that I had a decent tour. But international rugby is a massive step up. If you are struggling in a Pro 12 fixture, you can generally find a way back out. But if you get caught with a bad engagement or shoulder placement on the Test stage, the power that some of these guys can generate will blow you out of the water.

“I need to find consistency in those technical areas. When I sit down in the next few days to assess my goals for the season, that will be on my list and I’ll shape my training around it. For the moment though we’re barely back in the door after the summer. It’s all about maximising potential gains and putting ourselves in the best physical condition to take on the season.”

While Furlong has made great strides in recent seasons, the evergreen Mike Ross continues to play an important role for both club and country. But as he approaches his 37th birthday, he will know that he can’t fend off Furlong’s challenge forever. For now both men will be happy to continue to share the workload.

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“It’s going to be a demanding season. Our performance in the Champions Cup last year is obviously something we will be looking to improve on this year. It’ll be important to get results early on so that we can build and progress from the group. That has to be the first goal.”

Castres Olympique, Montpellier and Northampton stand in the way of that objective.

In what will be a particularly busy period for Furlong, the New Ross man will be hoping to be involved in a challenging November series with Ireland. While the prospect of fronting up to the three northern hemisphere heavyweights within six months might have once frightened an Irish side, Furlong is excited about the prospect of the Australians and Canadians visiting Dublin, while he is also likely to face down the haka for the first time.

“Given how close the lads came in 2013 we’ll be keen to finally get one over on them [New Zealand]. Of course there’s a lot of water to go under the bridge between now and then but Chicago is looming larger on the horizon. Soldier Field will be a crazy atmosphere as I’ve no doubt that the Irish ex-pat community will make up most of the 80,000 capacity.”

Having coming so close to taking a giant scalp in South Africa, Ireland ultimately left the country with just one win from three. Would an evasive victory against New Zealand redeem their 2016?

“Obviously we will be looking at winning all of those games. If you consider that our squad was missing a lot of senior players in South Africa, we gave a good account of ourselves. Lads had to fill those big shoes and I think that experience will stand us in good stead. We never go into a set of games shooting for a 40% success rate. Irish rugby has to move beyond that.”

After a relaxing few weeks off that included the “greatest tour ever” to Barbados alongside a number of his international colleagues, Furlong now returns to a Leinster fold with a few notable absentees – both Eoin Reddan and Luke Fitzgerald have hung up their boots, Ben Te’o is now at Worcester Warriors while Isaac Boss has returned to his Kiwi roots.

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“Given some of the premature retirements we’ve had recently I think it’s important to start developing skills that will help you adapt to life post-rugby. You never know what’s around the corner – this time last year Kevin McLaughlin was leading Leinster into a new season. I’m looking at my options at the moment.

“I finished my Business degree in DCU three years ago, so I’ve had a decent break from studying. But I’ve an ambition to take my education further now again so that I’m set up whenever that day comes – hopefully not for a long time. The books can actually provide a good distraction from all the rugby.”

By all accounts, Furlong is a keen student and this was evidenced when he sought to master new skills whilst on holiday.

“I struggled to get to grips with wakeboarding! I tried it a load of times and just couldn’t manage to stay up. But I couldn’t leave the place until I did. When it finally happened, it might have been so quick that the lads may have missed it but it was certainly satisfying! It’s actually getting bigger in Wexford, so maybe one day I’ll get back to it!”

With such determination and a thirst for knowledge, Furlong looks set to take his young career to new heights this season.

For more information on Tadhg Furlong, check out his new website: tadhgfurlong.com