Irishman Rochford learning the ropes with Lazio in Italy's top league

The former Crosshaven prop is loving life in Rome and learning huge amounts.

LAST WEEKEND IN Stadio Luigi Zaffanella, two Irishmen were involved as Viadana saw off visitors Lazio in Italy’s national rugby championship.

Ian McKinley, the former Leinster out-half whose remarkable return to the professional game has been deservedly documented, kicked a conversion, penalty and drop goal as Viadana secured an 18-9 win, while the Lazio team included an ambitious young Irish prop.

5WVhAk0N (1) Rochford, second from left, after winning the Bateman Cup with Cork Con. Source: Colbert O'Sullivan.

James Rochford was making his seventh league start of the season for the Eccellenza club and he wears the number three shirt again this afternoon as Lazio meet crosstown rivals Flamme Oro Roma in the local derby match.

The 23-year-old is a product of Crosshaven RFC in Cork, with whom he won an historic All-Ireland Junior Cup in 2011 when still a teenager. Rochford moved on to play senior rugby with Cork Con and Dolphin, but last summer felt he was ready to progress into the professional game.

A Munster man born and bred, he found the door into his home province closed and instead made the decision to get out of Ireland and learn his trade by playing professional games.

There were offers from Championship clubs in England and two sides in France, but Lazio’s approach was too good to refuse.

Rochford was part of a hugely talented group of young players that rose through the ranks in Crosshaven leading up to that All-Ireland win in 2011, with former Munster and now Worcester lock Darren O’Shea among the posse too.

The likes of Cian McGovern, Killian O’Keeffe and Darren O’Keeffe  - who all now play senior club rugby – were part of that Crosshaven group that pushed each other hard to improve.

Mossy Barry was the inspirational, innovative coach driving them along all the way.

It was a huge, huge benefit for us,” says Rochford of growing up in the rugby-mad bubble that was Crosshaven RFC.

“Looking back on it now, you only realise when you move on that it was such a big part in all of our lives. It played into so many things, for rugby, for friendships, for everything.

“I was only talking to Shaz [O'Shea] about it the other day, there’s stuff we’re doing in Italy and stuff he’s doing in Worcester that we were doing back when we were 16 in Crosshaven. Crazy as he might have been, Mossy Barry was way ahead of his time.”

Rochford and his friends broke into Crosshaven’s Junior Cup team when still just 17 and 18, and at a time when several wise rugby heads were returning to the club, the battle-hardened likes of Merle O’Connell and Rob Barry.

Given the ongoing debate about club rugby’s place in pushing players into the professional game, it’s apt that Rochford stresses the value himself and O’Shea got from playing in that environment.

Darren O'Shea makes a break Rochford is close friends with former Munster man O'Shea. Source: Alex Todd/INPHO

“They were physical and it made us physical, then pushing each other for ambitions to win a Junior Cup,” says Rochford, who played on the loosehead side of the scrum in his youth. “It’s almost been bred into us that we want to achieve, achieve and achieve.

“It was huge. When we came in we were so young and immature. Even the likes of Jake Grey [who played for Samoa at last year's World Cup] was huge for me, because I used to be scrummaging against him every Tuesday and Thursday night.

“All those little things were huge. They show you the ways and the craft, they gave something back to the game. I don’t think you can get that in an academy structure, it’s the hard-fought, traditional, old-school way.”

A season after the All-Ireland success, McGovern, O’Shea and then Rochford were called by Cork Con to play with their U21s side, which they did under dual-status terms while still remaining with Crosshaven.

Soon Rochford advanced into Cork Con’s senior ranks, however, where he began working with the “perfectionist” Brian Hickey and Brian Walsh, now Munster’s attack and backs coach. Walsh’s “brain for the game was something else,” says Rochford.

The young prop played an important part as Con won the All-Ireland Bateman Cup in 2013, before Mick O’Driscoll arrived in to replace Walsh in charge of the side and Rochford opted instead for a move across the city to Steve Forde’s Dolphin.

Forde and Rochford formed a close working relationship, with the head coach underlining his belief that his player could move into the professional game. Indeed, it was Forde who put Rochford in touch with the agent who helped him secure the move to Lazio last year.

In truth, Rochford’s dream had always been that Munster would come calling for him, as they did for his friend O’Shea. There were hints of interest during Rochford’s time in Con, particularly with Walsh stating his case, but they amounted to no more than inclusion in the ‘scrum camps’ run by the province.

Only after Rochford had signed terms with Lazio did genuine movement occur on the Munster front, as the province reached out looking for video footage of the prop in action.

“I was on the plane the next day,” says Rochford, “they left it too late for me. They were asking for video footage, but they had it all. It was all there for them to look at. It was excuse after excuse and I felt I could go that extra bit more and go into the pro ranks.”

12319790_1092615877440068_1782794987_n Rochford [3] lines up a hit in the Italian league. Source: Lazio Rugby

Still, the dream of donning that famous red shirt drives Rochford on.

“When I was young, from when I was playing with Darren back in Crosshaven, that was the goal. The sole focus was to put on the red jersey and that’s still in the back of the mind even over here, to get back home and try and put on that red jersey, hopefully go for the green.

“But it’s a mentality thing and you’re looking at the academy structure in Munster where you might not have to play a game every week. I would think the same as Darren, that the best way to learn is to play a game.”

Indeed, Rochford’s mentality strongly echoes that of second row O’Shea, who actually left Munster’s academy set-up to head to England and play senior games with Worcester.

Over in sunny Italy, Rochford is thriving. He arrived to Lazio last September after completing a full pre-season with Dolphin and was straight into pre-season games with the Rome-based club, swiftly earning the starting tighthead spot that he hasn’t relinquished.

He is thoroughly enjoying working with head coach Carlo Pratichetti, a former hooker who was capped by Italy, and feels his scrummaging has improved in a major way.

That was the main reason I left home, to get over here and experience a different culture of scrummaging,” says Rochford. “It’s really, really opened my eyes. It’s a different ball game. It’s technical and it’s a mindset thing.

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“It’s ideal for me, because I needed to be improving at scrummaging. Carlo is very technical, he’s very good. He’s showing me a few things I wouldn’t have been taught back home. It’s kind of dark arts really.”

The training volume in Italy is higher, with an intense schedule involving hill runs, video analysis, skills sessions, scrummaging, full squad sessions on the pitch and a range of other activities.

Lazio Rugby is one arm of the S.S. Lazio sports club, which is most famous for its Serie A football team. The rugby club trains in the same superb multi-function sports facility in Rome that houses the football team.

“The national rugby team were training there recently, the soccer club is there, ourselves and then the hockey club. It’s like a small city of training facilities, which is very good for us. Everything is in the one spot, synthetic and normal pitches, recovery, everything.”

Youths_Cvn_Gowen_rdax_80 Rochford [left] in his younger years as Crosshaven U18 captain. Source: Munster Rugby

6’3″ Rochford has found that his fitness has vastly improved as a result of the new schedule. He’s now weighing in at 122kg, while his body fat has dropped under 20%. Still, the Cork man laughs that his housemate, South African out-half Juan Kotze, has been “shocked at the amount of eating” the prop requires to sustain himself and build more muscle mass.

Rochford, whose younger brother Scott is now coming through the ranks back in Crosshaven, admits that getting to grips with the Italian language was an initial struggle but he is enjoying life in a new culture.

“It’s beautiful here,” says Rochford. “I’m about 12 minutes outside the city in the countryside and it’s very calm. When we have free time, we go to the Colosseum or the Trevi Fountain, all those places.”

His family are planning a visit for the league fixture against Mogliano in March, and they tune into the online live streams of Lazio’s games whenever they are available. Rochford left behind him one year of a Recreation and Leisure Management degree in CIT in order to move, but can complete that if and when he returns to Ireland.

Indeed, that is partly the goal for Rochford as he improves with each game in Italy. He looks back at Munster’s tighthead stocks and feels he measures up to what the province has in the position.

“I look at those guys and think I have a lot more to offer than they would. I would measure myself against that. It’s talks with the agent over the next while to see what the options are because I have an option to stay here for a second year, so it depends on what comes in.”

Rochford says a player can make a “very decent living” playing professional rugby in Italy, particularly as the club covers accommodation, a car, and all expenses alongside the basic salary.

Most importantly, he is learning at a rapid rate in the areas he was hoping to. For a tighthead, gaining expertise in the scrum is about as big an investment as they can make in their career.

Still only 23, the strong-minded and ambitious Rochford has years in the game ahead of him. He is eager to rise up the ranks rapidly and is delighted that his decision to take a punt on moving to Italy is working out.

“The only bad thing is missing family and friends,” says Rochford. “It’s another string to my bow being over here, so it’s learning and getting the experience. I know the academy structures are there for a reason but I think the only way you can learn if by getting into the nitty gritty of it.

“Life is about getting into it and making sure you’re learning your craft.”

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Murray Kinsella

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