15 April 2023
Michael Dykes is only just getting started.
Yet already, he boasts a highlight reel enviable of any Irish fan or youthful player making his first steps into professional rugby – Dykes happens to be both.
Hattricks against Saracens and Harlequins in the Premiership Rugby Cup and Gallagher Premiership respectively projected the 21-year-old into the limelight in the 2022/23 campaign.
His journey through his Senior Academy years to now putting pen-to-paper at Hazelwood to become a professional London Irish player have been turbulent, nonetheless.
“The first year in the Senior Academy was during Covid, which was pretty dark,” he explained.
“We were in small groups of maybe six or so and we trained on the astro, it was strange because I was with people who I had never met before.
“I got injured in the middle of pre-season and was out for a while with my hamstring, and I came back in my second year and did my other hamstring which kept me out of the first three-quarters of the second season.”
Despite the adversity, Dykes feels he is better for it and the time on the sidelines has moulded him into the player he is now.
He detailed: “I worked pretty hard with the physios to be more robust so I can come into this year and go at it.
“It was pretty hard at the start and put me in a pretty dark place, if I’m honest, where I wasn’t sure if it was still for me and didn’t know if my body could handle it.
“It means a lot more now having come through that to sign on, some boys in the Academy have had to leave rugby and you never want that to be you.
“It’s nice to be now getting that gametime and being rewarded for it, it is a big motivator and people underestimate how it can play on your mind.
“If you have had injuries in the past and you feel something in training for example, it keeps you motivated to be fit, stay on top and be professional to make sure you’re ready to play.”
With his mental resilience only fortified in his experiences in the junior side of the Club, Dykes signing a new contract with the Club is a “dream come true”, in the eyes of the youngster.
The 21-year-old started his venture into rugby playing for the junior sides at Bracknell RFC, just as teammates Jack Cooke, Jacob and Ben Atkins did, before a move to Maidenhead Rugby Club aged 12.
It was there that Dykes began to make his first big strides, including winning three Berkshire Cups for Maidenhead, whilst being absorbed into Irish’s Developing Player Programme (DPP).
That was to be the inception of his passage as an Exile, progressing all the way through the Academy levels, including the Academy, Colleges and Education (ACE) sides, where he won a title with St. Paul’s.
“You realise all the sacrifices you have made down the line that, at the time, were really hard to make but it has paid off.
“Especially coming all the way through with a few boys like Tarek [Haffar], who I went to school with, Harmesy [Alex Harmes] and Will Joseph – I used to play against him at under-9s!
“There’s a lot of pride when I’m on the pitch with those boys.
“It’s what I’ve always wanted and it’s something I set out to be when I first started playing rugby, and especially with this Club.
“Irish has always been my Club, so I will always have the pride and the passion when I put the jersey on.
“I try to give it everything and be the best I can be in that jersey, and try to not let it down.”
Dykes’ trajectory this season, having made his Club debut for Irish in a Premiership Rugby Cup tie against Leicester Tigers last term, has seen him involved in the third tier of English rugby and the Heineken Champions Cup.
Time on loan with title-chasing Rams in National League 1 aligned with his pool stage appearances in the Premiership Rugby Cup, an experience he remains be grateful for in the story of a breakthrough season.
Playing in all three senior competitions for Irish this season has seen Dykes’ personal development naturally come on with plentiful gametime, leaving him with no other choice but to raise the levels of his game.
“I have to thank Rams so much for giving me the gametime and confidence to come here to do the best I can, because without them, I don’t think I would be anywhere near it.
“You always need to practice what you’re doing in training because there’d be no point in doing it otherwise.
“I feel like I have matured in my decision making on the pitch, in the Academy there’s not as many repercussions on the pitch compared to when you’re in the first team when you always have the coaches on your back.
“My skillset has had to develop quicker against world-class players, it’s something you have to rise up to instead of falling away.”
A grounding in rugby league, passed on through Dykes’ father, has been vital in influencing that skillset the wing possesses.
“I think my ability to read the game is a strength for me, I can see pitches better mainly because of my dad who played rugby league, who taught me from a young age how to read plays.
“Initially he didn’t like it that I played union being from up north, so it was a bit of a split household and Irish was the only union side I really watched outside of league.
“Then at Irish we have Brad [Davis] and Les [Kiss] who are originally league boys, they can help with reads and pitches too.
“League is always about them one-on-one tackles and beating the first man, there are different rules and the rucks are different but there are a lot of similarities for outside backs.
“Our system sort of brings the best of that, spreading the ball wide, being quick and executing intricate plays is linked into league.”
In the green and white of London Irish, Dykes has bagged seven tries in 10 appearances, an impressive record with four of those touchdowns arriving in derby day fixtures against Harlequins.
Back in January, he became the third player in Premiership history to score a hattrick on his Premiership debut after Gloucester Rugby’s Lesley Vainikolo and Courtnall Skosan of Northampton Saints, the first active Academy player to do so.
Reflecting on his second score of the afternoon and Irish’s fourth, the pacy wing explains how he pulled off his magnificent brace where he beat Quins’ hooker George Head to finish acrobatically despite more pressure from Danny Care.
“Me and Stokesy [James Stokes] both said after I probably walk it in if he gives it a little earlier, it was close, but there was no cover and I just got stopped by Danny Care a few moments previous down the wing.
“Stokesy played a blinder that day, he bagged his own try and done really well to set me up.
“I do a lot of work with Lights [James Lightfoot Brown] to try and get my hips away from players coming across, whether that’s with a hand-off or a bump, and I straighten him up by catching and stopping myself.
“I go again running and try to get my fend in his neck, chest area and try and move all my body weight away and dive over, I was happy with that!”
Having proved his credentials in crossing the whitewash this year, Dykes is now looking forward to seizing the opportunity to become an Exiles mainstay in the coming years.
“I think I can bring a good finishing ability that I believe we have already, but I want to add to the strength of it because the way we play rugby is brilliant for wingers, and we need to know how to finish them off.
“We create a lot of chances and I have an opportunity to now go in next year and put my hand up and be a starter week in, week out, because that is what I want.”
Dykes’ attention away from the training paddock at the Hazelwood Centre is often consumed in front of his PlayStation 5, often taking on teammates Henry Arundell, Afolabi Fasogbon and Chunya Munga at ‘Call of Duty’.
“They’re good, but I’m top level,” he proudly claimed.
However, the youngster is never too far away from life at Irish, who is determined to influence the next generation of Academy players on the talent conveyor belt in Sunbury-On-Thames.
“I do a bit of coaching with the DPP guys on Monday nights and also the under-18s, me and Jack Walsh, and it’s definitely something I want to do next year,” Dykes explained.
“This season got a bit hectic and I had to stop, but I want to get a degree and coaching qualification alongside that soon too.
“Lights and Dec Danaher came down to a few sessions, when I was younger I had Alex Lewington come in and do a few sessions with my group and I felt like I could really relate to him – that’s something I want to help with new players.”