One of my all time favourite quotes about the game of rugby came from former sports journalist Alfred E Crawley: “The tactical difference between association football and rugby with all its varieties seems to be that in the former, the ball is the missile, in the latter, men are missiles.” I couldn’t help but think of those lines when thinking of the rugby wonder that is Niyi Adeolokun. Adeolokun, now recognised as one of the fastest players in provincial rugby, Crawley’s missile personified. No doubt his speed is part of the reason he was spotted by Connacht’s Nigel Carolan, the Academy manager, and subsequently head honcho Pat Lam. Adeolokun is a talent, now playing at the highest level, to which Trinity can proudly lay claim, having played for our firsts for five years before being handed a development contract with Connacht.
His meteoric rise from playing club rugby with Trinity to being signed by Connacht is in itself an impressive achievement. He cites Tony Smeeth, director of rugby at Trinity, as instrumental to this transition. Smeeth got in contact with Carolan, who after watching Adeolokun play, invited him to play for Connacht As. Pat Lam happened to be at a Connacht A game against a touring Russian team, when he saw more than just a spark of talent in our Niyi. It’s been a whirlwind of sorts since then.
In November of last year, Adeolokun signed a two-year professional contract, keeping him with the province until June 2017, and he has featured prominently for Connacht all season. It was a great achievement for Trinity rugby. Having fostered and developed Adeolokun’s talent, it was always the goal to see him play professionally. When asked who has inspired him most as a rugby player, Adeolokun cites the great people he worked with at Trinity: “My most influential teammate would have to have been Scott La Valla, or Dominic Gallagher. But also all of the coaches who helped me in Trinity over the years, and Tony Smeeth, because they always believed in me and always went the extra mile for me.”
While the rugby world has stood to attention and marvelled at Adeolokun’s speed and the pace he injects on the wing, there’s a lot more to him as a player. He has looked strong in defence all season and his work rate and ability to read the game effectively have seen him lauded as one of Connacht’s break out talents of the season. Also earning him praise is the manner in which he’s upped the ante physically, having bulked up considerably. Lam has been quick to extol Adeolokun for his efforts and it’s clear that he possesses genuine admiration for the 24-year-old: “Niyi is an example of someone who was given an opportunity and took it with both hands. From day one he has impressed us all, players and coaches, with his work ethic and desire to succeed. He has put on nearly ten kilos in weight and is the fastest member of our squad. But what is so great about Adeolokun is that he is an extremely hard working individual. He has gone from an amateur to a full pro in a year and he fully deserves the recognition.”
Adeolokun’s work ethic and desire to succeed are traits that no doubt set him apart from the pack. The approbation goes both ways however, and Adeolokun gives us great insight to the type of character Lam brings to his role as coach. “Working with and meeting Pat was definitely the best thing that could have happened to my life professionally because Pat is not just a coach to me; he’s also like a dad, with the way he advises me and talks to me about issues not only in rugby but outside it,” he tells me. “I give huge credit to him, and each and every player and manager in Connacht for helping my quick transition and making me feel very at home in Galway.”
The quick transition made by Adeolokun from playing his rugby with Trinity in the AIL to playing with a professional outfit is no mean feat. He seems pretty chilled about the changes in his life, however. “Apart from moving out of home for the first time and now living in Galway, very little in my life has changed,” he says. Some further probing needed perhaps. What has been the biggest challenge in making the transition? Or in other words, the biggest challenge in being a pro rugby player: “The biggest challenge would probably be bringing the right mentality to every session everyday. After a couple of days training, your mind and body tend to get weak but in the professional environment the guys are self driven and mentally very strong.”
While it’s obviously been a step up physically, there was also a big leap mentally: “That would probably have been my weak point. Scott, Dom and Tony all identified that I just needed to toughen up mentally and things would be a lot easier for me.” Adeolokun is keen to stress the strong mental resolve that must accompany the tough physicality of a pro rugby player. Mental resilience is as vital as physical prowess. Mental nerve and vigour must be developed just as strength and sinew of body. This is all part of the pursuit of becoming a stalwart of professional rugby. It’s like French player Jean-Pierre Rives always said: “The whole point of rugby is that it is, first and foremost, a state of mind, a spirit.”
While Adeolokun may have had to hone his mental finesse somewhat, his skills on the field of play were never an issue. Having grown up in Nigeria, rugby was not his primary sport of interest: “To be honest like every kid growing up in Nigeria, football would have been the biggest sport – every kid wanted to be a footballer. It wasn’t until I got to Ireland that I would have taken notice of rugby.” Adeolokun was also a great gaelic footballer in his day, which always makes for a skilful back in rugby. Watch him play rugby and you can’t help but feel that he was fated to do so. Rugby deserves a player like Adeolokun, just as Adeolokun deserves a sport like rugby as the outlet for his talent. During his time with Trinity, Adeolokun was also an integral member of the 7s squad.
Does he feel as though playing 7s with Trinity was beneficial to his skill set as a winger playing Union? “Yeah, certainly playing 7s tests your skills in every aspect of the game and I feel like it brought the best out of me as a player, from little things such as passing accuracy to tackling and, most importantly in 7s, especially my fitness,” he says. Adeolokun’s mastery of the wing has earned him a sizeable and already established fan base in the West. Connacht, with the exception, perhaps, of their disappointing display against Edinburgh recently, have this season been playing with a passion and energy unprecedented in the province. Their season so far has been defined by the employment of varied and diverse game plans. Perhaps the injection of capable youth in the form of Jack Carty and Niyi Adeolokun has given them a new found puissance.
The western province has most certainly seen worse days. Yet they can lay claim to some of the most loyal and devoted fans on this island, an asset that Adeolokun must find the most powerful of motivating forces: “Yeah Connacht fans are without a doubt some of the most loyal fans I’ve ever seen or heard of. In the past win or lose they were very firmly behind the team and it’s great that this season is going well for us so far. When we go out on to the pitch we always talk about doing the fans proud and hearing them cheering us on gives us the extra bit of motivation to get us through most games.” Adeolokun first got a taste of this type of stimulus in his very first game for Connacht, against Dragons. It must have been an inimitable feeling. “The game against Dragons was surreal,” he says. I still very clearly remember our jog into the dressing room after our warmup – the crowd were so loud and deafening as we jogged in. It is a day I will not be forgetting anytime soon. Also playing against former Lions like Andy Powell and Lee Byrne were also what made that day incredible for me.”
The most interesting thing about talking to Adeolokun is the insight he gives into how special it is to play for the cohesive group that is Connacht. I ask him to describe the playing culture at the province: “The culture in Connacht is a family culture really. We strongly believe in our ability and that we all need to work as a team in order to be as successful as we can. We also like to engage with the public at Connacht as much as we can.” Adeolokun is clearly a hard working, astute and gifted rugby player. He values team work and preparation as key aspects of the game, including the use of analysis: “I would value the use of analysis very highly. It helps you prepare and confirm whatever you see on game day so you won’t be caught off guard. Of course you still have to just play off the cuff sometimes but with the help of video analysis I feel a lot more comfortable because I sort of have an idea of what to expect.”
In addition to his playing capabilities, however, it is his attitude that sets him apart. I ask him what he would like to achieve most as an athlete and as a rugby player. “Physically I just want to be one of the best athletes in the sport,” he tells me. “At this very moment, though, I just want to learn as much as I can from my teammates and opposition players and above all to be a valuable asset to my team.” In making that his greatest goal, he is just that, an asset, and one to be cherished. Connacht have found a real treasure in Adeolokun, and they’re lucky to have him, just as Trinity were for those 5 seasons, a time which saw them promoted from division 2A to 1B in the AIL.
Finally, as we part ways, I ask Adeolokun what he loves most about his sport, about the game of rugby: “I love the relationship you build on the rugby field with your teammates and with the guys you play against.” For him the spirit of rugby is the spirit of friendship. What he says next however, is the very essence of rugby: “It’s a beautiful game, a game where everyone with different talents and of different shapes can find their position on the field.”