Saturday 27 May 2017

Fastest man in the west taking the roundabout route to the top

Nigerian-born speedster had a slow-burning start to his career but he looks destined for great things

Niyi Adeolokun: ‘I was disappointed when I got cut by Leinster . . . I didn’t even play [competitively] for Leinster underage’. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Niyi Adeolokun: ‘I was disappointed when I got cut by Leinster . . . I didn’t even play [competitively] for Leinster underage’. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

We still come across a man who used to write on rugby in this parish and has escaped successfully into retirement. Quite a feat that, in the current climate. And it's reassuring, for his decency spilled over into his modus operandi: his default was to see the positive in every player he wrote about.

It wasn't that everyone got a free ride, rather that when he came across someone who could do something extraordinarily well, then that's what got top billing. And if they were obviously crap at something else then it was shifted down the piece as something that could be sorted at a later date.

Our man had folded away his laptop by the time Niyi Adeolokun came on the scene, but we have a fair idea what he would have written about the wing, had their paths crossed. And it would have differed from the views of a couple of coaches at the time.

For example, as a 19-year-old in Dublin, having taken a circuitous route to rugby, Adeolokun got a couple of try-outs with Leinster age-grade sides in non-competitive games. In one he missed a tackle in such an obvious position it was almost scripted. It would have made up a lot of minds about what he didn't have to offer. Then he scored a try that none of the other lads could even dream about.

In the other game he unveiled the first cousin of that previous defensive howler, and then delivered speed and footwork that left a much-vaunted opponent sitting on his backside. In both cases the coaches involved started their assessment by looking at the scale of the climb rather than the view from the summit. It's a common enough position for men in their position. And it's blinkered.

Niyi Adeolokun didn't engage with rugby until he arrived in Dublin from Nigeria as an 11-year-old. Mini rugby wasn't exactly a staple of life in his homeplace of Ibadan, a city of three million souls in the southwest of the country. He went back there for a holiday a couple of years ago to find a place, like himself, much changed.

The young lad's departure wasn't something he had a lot of say in, and the news of it hasn't remained as a major moment in his life.

"I can't quite remember exactly," he says. "I'd got two brothers in Nigeria. I remember it all happened so quickly . . . in Nigeria they like to keep that a bit quiet, about going abroad.

"When you actually get [to Ireland] and you try and say: 'Oh yeah, I'm here, see how things go.' I was quite young so I didn't really know what was going on until I got to Ireland, ringing my cousins back and they were like: 'Where were you? What happened?' And I was: 'Ah I was travelling,' and stuff like that. I remember getting all sad because I was going to be here and missing my brothers and stuff. Definitely it was a big culture change. Massive.

"I've grown to be quite individual - like, I live by myself now but I would have been quiet at the start. I definitely missed my friends and family back home a lot. I understand my mum had to move here - she obviously felt there was a better opportunity to take care of people back home a lot more."

His mother is a nurse, now working in St James's Hospital. How come he got chosen ahead of his brothers to make the trip? To keep his mum company?

"Pretty much so, yeah. My dad was travelling around as well - he wasn't around much so pretty much it was to keep my mum company. I think it may have been because I was the troublesome one when I was young, so she had to keep an eye on me."

He seems to have turned out all right. Though it wasn't easy. Brighton Road in Terenure was the Adeolokuns' first stop, and after finishing his primary education locally he moved to De La Salle, Churchtown, where the rugby element gradually kicked in. Even that wasn't exactly a smooth conversion.

This kid with the phenomenal pace was already turning heads on the Gaelic field with Templeogue Synge Street. Next came a shift in address over to Blanchardstown. And with local schools full up, the young Adeolokun became the Alan Whicker of the bus world. Four a day was the diet, over and back. And in later years when he hooked up with Shelbourne under 20s you could throw another couple in, as he weaved a triangle around the city.

"It (Shelbourne) was in the AUL out in Clonshaugh, and Jesus it was tough. I used to have to run out of school when the bell went, catch a bus, be on the bus for God knows, hour and a half through the traffic to try to get to training. I lived on the bus! So that was quite tough. I didn't really enjoy it either because it wasn't with mates really - the manager was nice but I didn't really like it that much and my love for football just faded. At this stage rugby was becoming a bigger influence as well, so that made it much easier for me."

The rugby had been a slow burner, with the coaches in De La Salle always trying to keep the flame lit. But by the time he got to senior year Adeolokun didn't have to be persuaded. And by its end his schools coach Lorcan Balfe had put him forward for a trial with Leinster under 19s, which brought good and bad news in turn. The good was being included in a squad to train over the summer; the bad was being ditched before the interpros started.

"At the start, I would have laughed, didn't care too much about it," he says. "I was joking with one my friends: 'At least we'll get the gear!' Then I trained for the summer and didn't get any gear and then I get cut! So when I thought about it I was quite disappointed. Everyone asks: 'Surely you played some underage representative?' I didn't even play (competitively) for Leinster underage."

The call to Leinster wasn't the only one Balfe made. Tony Smeeth in Trinity was also on his list, and by the autumn Adeolokun would be studying in DIT and playing rugby in Trinity. "He was like a twig when he arrived," Smeeth recalls. "But he had something about him that you can't coach."

Still, the new project needed something to motivate him. Perhaps it was when Smeeth mentioned Takudzwa Ngwenya - the US Eagles wing whom he had coached in the States - that the light went on with Adeolokun.

"He came to me: 'Jeez, you remind me so much of Ngwenya but I reckon that you're better than him! You've got better skills than him.' Yeah, because he'd just coached him, it gives you a lot more belief to say: 'Jeez, just start pushing harder and believing in yourself and being mentally tough as well.' This can work out for me."

The big step came in his last AIL season with Trinity. With the prospect of finishing his DIT course and trying to sort a job in the real world, Smeeth got him a trial with Pat Lam in Connacht. And that was that: a run-out for Connacht Eagles in the Sportsground; an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from the coach; and a development contract worth €12k on the table. Sorted.

Since then the wing has worked his way slowly, over three seasons, to international status. Initially his body was breaking down with the strain of being a professional, and trying to get an extra 10kgs on his frame. Then it was adjusting to the speed and intensity of the game at that level. And then there was the head-spinning experience of Carton House this autumn.

"Extremely intense, yeah," he says. "Just getting used to that set-up and being amongst the best players in Ireland was a different experience. Jesus, yeah, I was quite nervous. The second and third weeks got a bit easier but the first week, week and a half, were nerve-wracking. The good thing was having the Connacht guys there. I get on very well with them. To be fair, the other guys were great as well. There were some of the younger Leinster guys as well. It was quite cool because everyone was welcoming. I went to Craig Gilroy a lot about the plays. 'I just told you that five minutes ago!'"

The penny dropped in good time. His debut against Canada was short but sweet enough, and there is enough about his game to suggest he won't end up in the one-cap wonder category. Making a mark in Coventry this afternoon will feed into that, when Adeolokun will be part of a Connacht side under the microscope after last week's announcement that Lam is heading to Bristol at the end of the season. Getting into the Champions Cup on merit has been one of the great achievements of the Lam era in the west.

"He is the people's man," says the wing. "He says the right stuff to you and genuinely believes in you and he works hard to make sure you get there. That's one of the things I love about him. He believed in me straight away. He believed that I could get to the top. He's always pushing me hard. He asked me what did I want from him and I said: 'Just be honest with me and push me hard.' And that's what he's been doing with me since. He's been great with me."

That greatness will be gone by season's end, but Adeolokun has the tools to complete the job himself. A happy ending to a story lots would have considered not worth reading.

Wasps: R Miller; C Wade, A Leiua, K Beale, J Bassett; J Gopperth, D Robson; M Mullan, T Taylor, M Moore, J Launchbury (capt), K Myall, A Johnson, N Hughes, T Young. Replacements: A Rieder, T Bristow, J Cooper-Woolley, J Gaskell, G Thompson; J Simpson, B Macken, F Halai.

Connacht: T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, S Ili, B Aki, C Kelleher; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, C Carey, U Dillane, Q Roux, N Fox-Matamua, J Muldoon (capt), J Heenan. Replacements: D Heffernan, JP Cooney, F Bealham, S O'Brien, E McKeon, C Blade, R Parata, P Robb.

Referee: A Ruiz (France).

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