Rugby Union: Ezulike makes a name for himself

Leicester's young flying machine is ready for take-off.
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IT TOOK Nnamdi Ezulike just five minutes to convince Dean Richards that the Leicester manager had made the right decision to include the Uppingham-educated Nigerian on the left wing in the Tigers' season-opening Allied Dunbar Premiership match against Harlequins. That was how long it took the speedy Ezulike to score his first try, a moment which also earned him a place in the famous club's history - he became the first Tiger with a number on his shirt to score a try (the club having been obliged at the start of the season, to drop the letters they had used since their foundation back in 1880).

"Nnamdi has the potential go all the way," Richards, the former England and British Lion No 8, said. "His pace is unbelievable, but it is not just a matter of speed, he also has good hands." Ezulike has not missed a Premiership match since that opening game - quite a feat when you consider that there are two international wings, Craig Joiner (Scotland) and Dave Lougheed (Canada), waiting on the Leicester sidelines.

The next targets for this sporting Exocet are the bottom-of-the-table strugglers West Hartlepool. Tigers travel to Victoria Park today to take on a team who have yet to win a match, and who when they lose tend to do so by a cricket score. Against the lethal duo of Ezulike and Leon Lloyd, Leicester's other strike weapon, their chances of breaking their duck look remote.

Ezulike is not dwelling on that, though. He is still in a mild state of shock over his initial selection for the Tigers and the inherent modesty of the 21-year-old, who has a degree in politics from Loughborough University, was evident when he said: "At the start of this season I honestly expected to be having to compete for a second-team place with perhaps, at some point, an outside chance of getting on the first-team bench - after all Dave Lougheed is in the squad. So when I was told I was in the side to face Harlequins I was really shocked."

Richards, though, was confident that it was the right decision. "It has to be said that Nnamdi is not one of the best trainers. Not what you might call enthusiastic," he explained. "But we put pressure on him over the summer to do a lot more and get himself fitter and he has worked hard on that and on his all-round game, on his own as well as under supervision. He has concentrated not just on his attacking role, but also on his support work and getting under the high ball and so on. We realised at the start of the season that he had huge potential so we selected him for the first match."

The searing pace of Ezulike, who won the National Schools 100m title aged 17 in 10.8sec, has so far brought him four tries.

"Those were in my first four games," he said. "But I was warned to expect something like this pattern of scoring by Leon. He said exactly the same thing happened to him when he first started playing for the first XV. Then he went something like 15 games without scoring. I'm not worried that in the last four matches I haven't scored a try. They'll come again. What's important is that we keep winning."

He accepts that in the modern game the wing's role is no longer a one- dimensional one of going round the outside and grabbing the glory. "I want to contribute to defence as well," says the 6ft 1in, 131/2st Ezulike. "Phil Larder, the former rugby league coach has been working on our defensive play, there is massive emphasis on it at the club and in particular on tackling, and it seems to have worked because as a team we have conceded very few tries so far."

Larder's presence could be significant for Ezulike's future. Larder was appointed a coaching adviser to England last November and the former Great Britain rugby league coach is clearly in a position to provide the national coach, Clive Woodward, with first-hand intelligence on the progress of the young Tiger.

Ezulike, who was brought up in Leeds and is an ardent fan of that city's football team, is fairly laid-back about his future but he admitted: "I would love to play for England. That is my ambition, but so far I have not heard anything from anyone involved in the England set-up at any level."

A few more tries, an armful more of big hits and all that could change, and when, not if, it does, do not say you weren't warned. The world is going to like Ezulike.