Zach Kibirige: Growing at Newcastle

Zach Kibirige has thrived when he has been given the opportunity to play for Newcastle Falcons this season, but wants to achieve more personally with the north-east club.

Zach Kibirige is far too gracious to mention the fact himself, but the truth is that he is certainly one of the rising stars of English rugby.

Kibirige, who is 21 years old and one of the gems of the Newcastle academy system, is still looking to make his full breakthrough into the first team set-up at Kingston Park but he has already made the right impression in Europe this season when he has played for the Falcons.

When speaking to Kibirige over the phone, I get the sense straight away that this young man is very down to earth. He seems unaffected by his rise and the potential future ahead of him and when I mention Newcastle’s current league position in the table, he still remains grounded. “Last week’s win [against Bath] was always going to be a big moment in the season and we knew it was coming because we have been training well and we are still positive.”

Still young, Kibirige is one of a current group of graduates from the academy at Newcastle who is knocking at the door of the first team and it is clear that Dean Richards and his staff are nurturing the young Englishman well.

The question, as ever, while we talk over phone, is whether he can be the next product from Newcastle’s academy to establish themselves in the first team. “That is my immediate aim,” he says. “I want to keep training well everyday as I try and break into the Newcastle team before I start considering things past that. If you are spending too much time dreaming about what could be, then you forget about why you are here in the first place.

“There is quite a big group of the younger lads that are getting plenty of opportunities at the minute which is always good to see. It fills you with confidence that if you are doing the right things in training and getting the opportunity on the pitch and taking it, then you will get selected and you will get a run in the team. That is why Newcastle is a good club for me and the younger lads because you might not see that happen at other clubs.”

Kibirige has had a rugby education which has seen him play pivotal roles in the teams he has been involved with which has also required him to show maturity beyond his years. He grew up in Middlesbrough and attended Yarm School on the bank of the River Tees where he won the Daily Mail Vase in 2013 after scoring tries in both the semi-final and the final.

He was recruited by Newcastle’s academy whilst at school at the age of 12, but rather than him throwing away his books for a rugby ball straight away, he and the club worked side by side in order for him to gain good grades and ultimately achieve A-Level qualifications.

“Balancing the two wasn’t as difficult as I thought it was going to be,” he says. The academy mangers of Mark Laycock and Jimmy Ponton were helping me with my rugby as well as teaching and schooling so everyone involved made it really easy for me. Anything I needed, they were the first ones to come and help me if I needed extra time at school and the same with training.”

And Kibirige went on to secure three A’s in Psychology, Biology and PE and insists rugby was always going to be the next major step in his life after his A-Levels.

“It was a no brainer for me really. Of course you want to go out and celebrate your A-Levels with your mates, but playing rugby is something I have always wanted to do so I had to sacrifice that aspect of social life.”

From school, it was straight into full-time rugby with the Falcons, but before all of that, he had already had a taste of first team rugby. The pacey winger made an impact in the Championship winning season for Newcastle when he scored four tries in three matches which once again highlighted the talent that this player possess.

In a way, that is the life of a young prodigy. Their talent is used in small doses just so their knowledge and understanding of high level rugby increases as the development of the player continues. Kibirige is ambitious and he now knows what he needs to do to hit those heights of first team rugby.

“The experiences I have already had have helped me develop as a player massively. When I have played I have tried to put myself in a position where I took quite a lot of responsibility on in that team and help make the decisions. I think it’s that sort of mind-set which I had has helped be a lot.”

He made quick progress after he left school, working hard with Newcastle whilst representing the England U18s and 20s. He made his senior debut for Newcastle against Gloucester in March 2014, but his landmark day turned out to be the biggest setback Kibirige has had in his short career as he broke his leg and tore his ankle ligaments which side-lined him for 13 months.

“During that time, I had people saying to me “You must’ve had been really gutted and frustrated,” Kibirige says. “Obviously I was really disappointed but I had to think that feeling like this isn’t going to make me get better and no-one is going to enjoy being around me if I am sat feeling sorry for myself, so I just got over it straight away. I got focused on getting into rehab, getting through the operations and then getting back as fast as I could.”

And that’s exactly when he has done. Kibirige did not let his head drop due to his injury and has worked hard to be on the cusp of the first team once again at Kingston Park. All he can do now is continue to train well and take the opportunities that fall his way, but after speaking to the young winger and given how much Kibirige has gone through already, you would back him to achieve exactly what he has set to do.