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How at 19, Manny Iyogun made transition from 105kg loosie to 115kg loosehead

By Liam Heagney

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It will be quite the story for Emmanuel Iyogun to exuberantly tell his grandchildren in the years to come how he fearlessly packed down for Northampton as a raw 19-year-old loosehead on consecutive weekends against the wily Dan Cole and the bruising duo of Harry Williams and Tomas Francis. Two streetwise England players and a canny Welsh tighthead are not the sorts of folk for apprentice props to willingly knock their head against but it was a needs-must situation for Northampton last year and the converted back-rower was only too happy to try and help.  

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After he walked off the Sandy Park pitch there were even kudos from England boss Eddie Jones, who had taken a trip south to check in on the England players on his radar. It was quite the feather. Such were the fears of Northampton boss Chris Boyd about the front row injury crisis that left them depending on the rookie Iyogun, there had even been speculation that Saints would forfeit the match and not play.  

In the end, the kid did well and he was credited for a couple of scrum penalty wins, the sort of feel-good moments that helped convince him that his academy coaches at Northampton were correct in having that difficult chat where they admitted they didn’t fancy his chances of making it professionally as a back-rower but he possessed the tools to be transformed into front-rower.  

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Jack Nowell guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload
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Jack Nowell guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload

It was after captaining the Northampton U18s side through the 2018/19 term that the club broached the subject of change. The story about how he willing jumped off the deep end some months later in going up against Leicester in the Premiership and Exeter in Europe was painfully heroic for a youngster who only began playing rugby in the first place as a 14-year-old.  

“I probably was a bit too big to be a footballer so my PE teacher pushed me more towards rugby and from there I got picked up by Northampton at a Southend versus Colchester game playing back row,” said Iyogun, explaining to RugbyPass how the ball started rolling for him in rugby. “I played back row most of my academy life and then the last year of my academy season I got offered the opportunity to try out the front row, see if I liked it there. 

“I gave it a try and to be honest I didn’t really like it but I had conversations with the academy and senior coaches, with scrum coach Matt Ferguson, and they assured me I would get used to it so I started learning the dark arts of the front row and have never looked back. I was a pretty decent back-rower but I don’t think I would have made it successfully at senior level. I was a non-jumping back row at the time and there are only a few players who can go out and do that, people like Nathan Hughes. The conversation was a bit stark but I trusted in my academy manager’s judgement, Mark Hopley. I said I’d give it a go, give it my all, and it ended up working out so I appreciated the advice from him.”

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Iyogun is too modest to pat himself on the back for his remarkable transformation. Not only regarding learning how to scrummage at a seemingly late age after he had been through the academy in a different position but also the drastic alterations that were required in his diet. He needed to bulk up fast and it’s been no mean feat to turn an initial 105kgs physique structured for back row play into a 115kg rig that sees him capably play at prop. 

“Chicken and rice, that was pretty much my staple meal and quite a bit of spinach as well. I’d have that at least twice a day when I was really bulking up, and then I love having a bit of fish incorporated into my diet. Anything that I could get into me honestly,” he said when asked to delve into the dietary programme he embarked on. 

“I came in about 105kgs and in general you have to put on weight but to move from back row to front row you have to put on a lot more weight. It was changing my nutrition to have to eat loads more. I was waking up during the night just to get calories in. That on top of doing my first year of professional rugby, which is a hell of a lot more running than you do at academy, so getting heavier and having to run more was really, really difficult but the club was really supportive. 

“The forwards and S&C coaches were majorly helpful in the fact that I probably wasn’t running as far as other props but they understood it was needed in terms of changing my physical composition. The canteen caters to each individual’s needs so if you need to put on calories, they know who you are and they will serve you bigger portions. 

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“My nutritionist at the time was great in terms of telling me what type of calories I needed. Back then I was looking to hit 4,500 calories a day, which is insane now when I think back to it, so just having good communication with catering staff and nutritionists in terms of how to get that weight on but make it good weight as opposed to just eating rubbish. I have a bit of a fast metabolism so keeping the weight on is a bit hard for me but I have got a process now that I’m sticking to in terms of keeping it on and I’m sitting around 114/115kgs now.”

If that is the story surrounding the process of bulking up, what about the bruising teachings required to swiftly get up to speed with the mechanics of the front row? “I’d many bad days, I couldn’t count, but all the bad days make the good days even more special,” he reasoned, reflecting on his training ground induction to loosehead scrummaging. 

“I tried both (prop positions) at the start but in terms of the way my game is and how I get around the park, loosehead is just a more suited position. I’m not heavy enough to be a tighthead which is a shame because I would have got paid more money if I was a tighthead,” he quipped. 

“In terms of the coaches, they massively didn’t baby me. They put me in the deep end, let me learn myself and I’m forever grateful for that because it has meant I have been able to learn and develop a lot quicker than a lot of my counterparts. In terms of the physicality it is very hard but to learn technically what you have to do in these scrums is trial and error and getting beaten up in training sessions was probably the more mentally challenging side of the coin.

“Towards the start, I did question myself and wanted to go back to back row but now that I’m enjoying the fruits of my labour I am really enjoying being part of the front row. You can definitely get into a very easy way of just labelling players in certain positions based on what they look like, setting stereotypes, but rugby is definitely a late development sport. 

“You shouldn’t be just bound to just one position. There are a lot of players who are unsuccessful in one position who could actually be extremely successful in different positions, so it’s a good story to tell people – that you are not just defined by your position and you can go on to good things if you just have an open mind and you’re a good learner.”

All that brings us up to this time last year and his sink or swim audition. “You have to have that mindset that you have got nothing to lose. You are a young player, you are learning from the best. You are going up against the most capped tighthead at that point [Cole], so it is all to gain, to be honest, and he can only teach you. I remember having a conversation with him afterwards and just the learnings I got from that game was just immense and it only carries you in good stead for the next game. 

“The sort of buzz around that game (versus Exeter the next weekend) was just crazy. It was hard not to soak it in and you are going in with an attitude of this is a really good opportunity for you to put your name out and have a real good go as a team. All that stuff about injuries, being a young front-rower, it just goes out the window and you end up playing your game and trusting in your preparation.”

Twelve months on again, Iyogun finds himself back at Franklin’s Gardens having had a Championship loan stint at Bedford before Boyd played him in a couple of late-season Premiership games. “It was awesome. Being a young player, being on loan to a club where you can get loads of game time and loads of time in the scrum is invaluable,” he enthused about his spell 40 minutes down the A428.

“It’s so valuable and it is something you are going to carry on with you for the rest of your career. These times are the best times to go and learn, to practice your art, to actually go out there and not feel too much pressure in the fact that you are able to make mistakes. That period of time was really good for me in my development. I have got a lot better from that stint of Bedford games.

“It definitely made me more determined and I came into pre-season not seeing myself as an academy player anymore. I had solidified myself a bit more. I definitely still am a young player and have got a lot more to learn, but there is no better place than where I am doing it now because I have got players like Alex Waller, Nick Auterac helping me out and pushing me on. I’m just looking to keep learning and push for a spot,” he outlined, adding that his time from the back row is also paying ball-carrying dividends now that he is up to speed with the technicalities of the front row.  

“That is something I still try to incorporate in my game in terms of carrying. You see a lot of looseheads now become ballplayers and getting through more work in terms of carrying like Ellis Genge. That is what I am modelling my game on, being more of an ambidextrous player as opposed to being just a guy who can scrum. That is where the position is going. Clubs are looking for more players that can actually offer up a bit more around the park as opposed to packing down and clearing rucks.”

About to start a degree in law and criminology so that there is a plan post-rugby, Iyogun gave the final word to the influence of the Franks brothers while they were at Saints. “The sort of depth and wealth of experience was incomparable to the other clubs. Owen Franks was great, helped me loads. He’s a big-time All Black, loads of experience. He helped me in terms of giving me a perspective of what his experience was like and what I can expect. 

“It’s very easy as a young player to be short-sighted in terms of selections and things not going your way, but he gave me an idea about how long this (front row) development takes because it is not very comparable to any other position in terms of how long it takes you to develop and know your arts. He was great. Alex Waller is also class. He is always helping out and doing extras. 

“It’s something I feel very privileged about, something I don’t take for granted. It doesn’t just come by luck, it’s just a lot of doing extras and putting the work in. It is a credit to the coaching staff, to Matt Ferguson and how he has helped me. There is a real vibe about the club. We are starting to build a culture in terms of always competing and staying connected. There are some really interesting and positive things a lot of people are going to see come out of Northampton soon.”

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How at 19, Manny Iyogun made transition from 105kg loosie to 115kg loosehead

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