By Neale Harvey
Newcastle flier Zach Kibirige is hoping last year’s stint in New Zealand honing his game-management skills will help him fight his way past Niki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti.
Kibirige, 23, has yet to fulfil his early potential, primarily because of injury, but believes he now has a golden opportunity to establish himself in a Newcastle side that is going places.
Having made his debut for Falcons as a 17-year-old Kibirige is determined to make this his big year.
He told The Rugby Paper: “It’s good to be getting a proper pre-season under my belt for the first time in a couple of years. I’m feeling really good and having a decent blow-out in the Premiership 7s last week means I’m ready to fly into the new season.
“A broken hand at the start of last season stuttered my progress and once Sinoti and Niki got in ahead of me, it was hard to argue with them staying there with the form they were in.
“I’m not particularly frustrated because if the team’s winning, that’s why I’m there. If what I’m giving in training is helping Niki and Sinoti stay on their game week-in, week-out, that’s fine. But when it’s my time to put the shirt on again I’ll be giving it my best shot.”
Kibirige endured a difficult period in 2016 before being unanimously cleared of sexual assault charges at Newcastle Crown Court that August, but time spent in New Zealand last year helped broaden his rugby horizons.
“I played for Sumner, in Christchurch, and got involved in Canterbury a bit as well,” Kibirige explained. “A few English lads have been over there, like Nathan Earle and Tom Whiteley, and it was a fantastic learning experience that really helped develop my game. Glenn Delaney (ex-London Irish) was head coach of Canterbury at the time and he was the man who got me over there. I’d been injured for a while the previous season and hadn’t had a lot of game time, so I asked Dean Richards and he said it was a good idea.
“The game-understanding I got was really good so I was 100 per cent happy with my decision to go. Just playing a different style of rugby and having different coaches putting their ideas across in different ways means I’m picking things up more easily now.”
While Newcastle may have shocked the Premiership with a fourth placed finish last season, Kibirige insists it was only the start of the Geordie resurgence.
He said: “I think we’re in a fantastic place and from what I’ve seen in pre-season there is no chance of us being complacent. Last season was the first step in a very long journey and we’re ready to kick-on.
“We reached three semi-finals last season which was a great achievement, but it’s no good sitting back and thinking we’ve done well because we want to go one better.”
Following an impressive showing in the 7s, in which he skippered a young side, Kibirige added: “There’s loads more to come from me and I’m ready to go.
“We’ve got top-quality depth in every position so it’s a big test now, but every opportunity I get I’ll be giving it my all to do my best for this club.”