Josh Ibuanokpe

“I feel strong, I feel tough, I feel proud, I feel like I can do anything.” For Josh Ibuanokpe, rugby is his life. But the softly-spoken British-Nigerian prop nearly lost it all after a serious neck injury. It took him months of hard work and the unwavering support of his team-mates and family to get back to doing what he loves – all to fulfil his journey.

What drives you the most?

Making my family proud – giving them something, and someone, to be proud of. I was born here in England but I consider myself Nigerian and British at the same time. My grandma always used to tell me about the warriors in our lineage, who make us survive things other people can’t. When I have difficulties, I take strength from the great people who have come before me because I feel if you don’t know where you came from, it’s very difficult to know where you’re going.

What pushes you to be better?

You need people around you who are going to be honest and tell you how it is, to give you that constructive feedback when you need it. The coaches I appreciate most are the ones who are tough on me when I need it. My parents, my brother and my sister give me the love when I need that too, but they’re also brutally honest with me. It’s human nature to get comfortable but they push me and make sure I don’t stay that way. I believe if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backwards.

How does rugby make you feel?

I feel like I’m the best version of myself when rugby’s good. I feel strong, I feel tough, I feel proud. I feel like I can do anything, be anyone. And when I’m in the game, everything around it doesn’t matter – it’s all about trying to win.

What was it like transitioning from playing for fun to playing professionally?

I first started playing when I was 11, at Dulwich College in London. As it’s progressed into a career, I’ve started taking things more seriously and working that little bit harder. Now, I care more about my achievements and the time I spend with my team-mates because I know how much I’ve put into it to get here. I think that’s the biggest transition from it being just a passion to being a career as well.

“I believe if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backwards”

Have you had any bad injuries in your career?

In 2016 I suffered a dislocated neck in a scrum – something I’ve done hundreds of times before. At first it was painful but I didn’t feel too bad. It was only as the days went on that it felt worse and worse, so I went to see a specialist who confirmed the dislocation. I was out for nine months – three months in a neck brace then six months of rehab – and I almost didn’t come back from it.

I could have retired but I was determined to make sure I finished the journey rugby had for me. I didn’t think it was over. Without the support I had things could easily have gone the other way, so I am really grateful I was able to come through it.

What was the road to recovery like?

It was tough, not least because it confirmed some of my family’s worst fears about the sport I play. That was difficult because everyone reacted very differently but when they saw how committed I was, I think they felt they had to support me. I appreciate that they did, and they still do now.

What’s the bond like with your team-mates?

In team sports you spend a lot of time together in some tough conditions. Some of the training can be brutal so you find out how hard someone’s willing to go. You gain respect by putting yourself in those difficult positions and by putting it all on the line. That respect and trust from your team-mates is invaluable when you’re on the pitch.

I’m at Saracens now but I’m still very close to a lot of people from my previous club, Harlequins, because those bonds are very difficult to break. No matter what happens, your team-mates are the people you stay in contact with. Sport – especially rugby – is unlike other professions where you might move on and lose touch. I’d say the bonds you form in competitive sport are stronger than in ‘normal’ life.

What’s going through your head before kick off?

I do get pretty nervous before a game, but I’ve learned to embrace it. I like that feeling because it means all the training, the hard work and the preparation is done – now it’s all about doing what you need to do to win.

I like to focus on doing my part, to the best of my ability, because when the whistle goes every one of us has a job to do for the team. I think about the best version of myself and what that is – being involved, being aggressive, and leading the team through my actions rather than words.

“Where I come from it takes a community to raise a child”

What has rugby taught you?

A lot of things. How to work well in a team; how to get along with different people; how to work hard, be patient and get through difficult situations. And especially how to overcome adversity.

Rugby, and sport in general, is very reflective of life. You work in a small, tight-knit environment with the other players to be the best you can be – but it’s also how you work with the coaches and the backroom staff like the physios and team managers. The way you mesh with all these other people who can help you and teach you is so important and it all contributes to you becoming a big team player and a better person. That is a big part of life in general.

Who is your TwelfthMan?

It’s my family and my close friends – the people I can always talk to about difficult things.

But I wouldn’t say my TwelfthMan is just one person. Where I come from it takes a community to raise a child, and that’s certainly true of my life – both inside and outside rugby.

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