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.

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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.”