Monday 6 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Ryan Byrne/INPHO
# speed
Ulster's athletic 'hybrid' Timoney earns Ireland shot with determined progress
The 25-year-old moved to Ulster in 2017 and hasn’t looked back since.

THERE’S A JOKE that Nick Timoney likes to make at Ulster training when the coaches split the backs and forwards up for separate drills.

Timoney often asks where the ‘hybrids’ go.

The gag has been getting him a slagging but there is truth in the humour. Timoney is a back row who can run at speeds many outside backs would be proud of. Pace isn’t his only attribute but it is one of his more eye-catching qualities.

He wasn’t always very quick. Coming through Blackrock College, he was a fine rugby player but it was only in fifth year that he started to work harder on his speed.

“I used to do the hammer and the throwing events and did alright in those, but I decided that wasn’t maybe improving my rugby directly,” says Timoney, who is part of Ireland’s squad for the upcoming Tests against Japan and the US.

“So I went to the sprint coach at school asking if I could come along to training. He sort of laughed at me first but then told me that if I wanted to do it, I would have to do it properly four or five days a week.

“I committed to that and we did the relay in school. We came second in the All-Ireland relay in 2014. I was the anchor leg, got the baton a couple of metres out in front and lost pretty badly!

“That was about the height of it but it was good fun. I loved athletics and sprinting especially – there is just something about a race.”

The anecdote tells us lots about Timoney’s determination to improve himself.

nick-timoney Ryan Byrne / INPHO Timoney is very fast. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Another example is his superb breakdown ability. The Ulster man has been getting two or three turnovers in some games this season but says it’s only something he has focused on recently.

“It’s not my natural tendency,” explains Timoney. “A couple of years ago, myself and Jared [Payne, Ulster's defence coach] had a goal going into a game that if I could make as many tackles as I could and be stronger in the tackles, make a higher percentage of the team’s tackles, then we should be in a good place.

“But just the change in breakdown laws piqued my interest over lockdown [the first one last year], the way they were going to start reffing it differently. It just rewards speed in so much more.

“I do think it’s more stacked in the defensive side’s favour a little bit, so it’s something I started focusing on.”

Payne, forwards coach Roddy Grant, and now ex-Ulster number eight Marcell Coetzee all helped Timoney to improve his technique and decision-making around the breakdown.

“I started getting traction with it in games. I realised I could keep pushing that and I’ve targeted it a bit more. I try not to chase it too much but if the opportunities present themselves, just take them.”

Timoney’s consistent growth as a player has seen him fill Coetzee’s boots impressively this season, first when the South African was injured and then when he departed home to the Bulls.

This Ireland call-up is just reward for Timoney’s form in Ulster, who he joined in 2017, never looking back since.

nick-timoney Ryan Byrne / INPHO Timoney is hoping for a Test debut in the next two weeks. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

The Dublin man played his underage rugby with his native Leinster but didn’t get a spot in their academy and instead shifted north after nearly departing to France to join Pau.

“I got chucked out of the Leinster system and there was a month or two where I certainly knew I wanted to keep playing rugby but I didn’t know where or when,” recalls Timoney. “Then there was talk about going over to France, I had that lined up and ready to go.

“Then I got a call from Niall Woods [his agent], who said he had just been off the phone with Kieran Campbell and that Ulster were looking to take me. Straight away the decision was made.”

For Timoney, there was no sense of taking some great leap by moving up the road to Ulster.

“I didn’t grow up in Ulster but obviously you grow up watching Ulster and Ireland games, so you know the players and the history.

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“I’d been to Belfast a few times, had played against the Ulster schools, and it wasn’t a big jump. It was immediately what I wanted to do.

“There was obviously a bit of an Irish influence going on in Pau at the time but I associated with Ulster more at the time and obviously still do now.”

Timoney settled in quickly in Belfast, moving in with Kyle McCall and a few other native Ulster men who showed him the ropes. He played for Ireland 7s along his pathway too and was thrilled to see them qualify for the Olympics recently, but his most important learning has been in Ulster.

Unsurprisingly, Coetzee was an influence.

marcel-coetzee-and-nick-timoney Morgan Treacy / INPHO Timoney learned lots from Marcell Coetzee. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“A lot of what I learned from Marce is just mindset stuff, how he approaches games. He had a hunger for the ball and for work, putting himself out there a bit more. Sometimes he was just going to step up and carry even if it wasn’t necessarily his position to.

“There’s times when you’re playing number eight or in the back row especially where it just takes someone taking the game by the scruff of the neck and not worrying about the system for five minutes, just going with it.

“The way he went about his business, he’s world-class and you learn little techniques and see the way he carries and deals with contact – his last metre into contact is obviously world-class.”

Coetzee’s departure has seen Timoney step up at number eight and he’s naturally determined to continue that next season. But first, there are hopes of an Ireland debut over the next fortnight.

“If I was to get a run-out it would be the proudest day of my life so far,” says Timoney.

“It’s been a dream for a long time and it would certainly mean a huge amount to me if I did get to play.” 

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