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Asher Opoku-Fordjour: 'You want to be the one that dominates'

By Liam Heagney
Asher Opoku-Fordjour (centre) is congratulated after his try at the 2023 U20 Championship for England versus Ireland (Photo by Grant Pitcher/Gallo Images via World Rugby)

Joe Marler enjoys playing the fool but when it comes to the speciality of front row play, he is a character whose endorsements carry weight. It was last November, fresh out of a third-place finish with England at the Rugby World Cup when some jokey touchline analysis live on TNT Sports about Harlequins versus Sale in the Gallagher Premiership suddenly turned serious.

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“Do you not want any analysis? So there is a young tighthead that has come off the bench for Sale. He replaced James Harper in the warm-up, something like that… I have got a big thing about young, up-and-coming front-rowers. Fin Baxter for us… but this guy, No18, I like the look of.”

Marler is not alone in liking the look of Asher Opoku-Fordjour. Alex Sanderson, the youngster’s boss at the Sharks, is constantly singing the praises of his soon-to-be 20-year-old tighthead who enjoyed a breakthrough year at the Manchester club, making 11 Prem and Champions Cup appearances.

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But here’s the thing: Opoku-Fordjour is such a talented young buck that he swaps roles and also packs down at loosehead for the England U20s. He did so for last year’s fourth-place finish at the World Rugby U20 Championship and he is packing down in that role again this month with Mark Mapletoft’s team two from two at the 2024 tournament and poised to confirm semi-final qualification with Tuesday’s final group game against South Africa.

Ask Opoku-Fordjour which position he prefers to play in and the answer quickly arrives. “Tighthead. I have been doing it since I started playing prop and I feel like I have got a greater understanding of how to play tighthead so far. That is the main thing,” he told RugbyPass in the lobby of the England age-grade hotel in Cape Town, accommodation that comes with a twist over the next few days as they are sharing with the Junior Boks, their next Pool C opponents.

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“It only helps really (to play both sides of the scrum). You get a feeling of what it feels like at tighthead what you wouldn’t like to happen to you and vice-versa and once you feel it helps you play tighthead. But the only thing I would say is after you do it, play one side a while, it’s difficult to go straight over and have the same result. I feel like it takes some time, a couple of training sessions, to get back into the feeling of the position you are playing.”

There is a softly-spoken shyness about Opoku-Fordjour and yet he doesn’t hold back volunteering information. “It was an honour to hear from someone that you have grown up watching and see what he has done in the game. For him to say a couple of nice words about me was really nice,” he said about having Marler pump his tyres on live TV.

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Rugby has been quite the adventure so far for the promising front-rower. Just 21 months ago, the Wasps academy kid was told he being made redundant, that the club had gone kaput overnight. “I would say I am a pretty calm guy,” he suggested, reflecting on the unsettling October 2022 development.

“I was upset that I was leaving the boys, the coaches that taught me what they taught me and that was the main thing, the relationships that I built with everyone in such a short time. I felt calm. I wasn’t too worried. I didn’t have an agent at the time. My (now) agent got in touch with me and he is a pretty calm guy as well, so we worked through options and I ended up at Sale.”

Switching to Manchester was quite the change for the Coventry local but quickly sensed the vibe of the rugby set-up and was smitten. “I feel like it was a warming club. Like Opoku-Fordjour, when you walk into the building you feel like it’s almost like a home. I was comfortable there and I knew a couple of the boys as well from Souths vs North games and it just felt right. I’m glad I made the right decision.”

Sanderson was another factor. “Yeah, he made me feel comfortable and I could tell that he wanted to put trust into his younger players which not all coaches are willing to do. That was one of the main things.”

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What the switch initially meant was a change in Opoku-Fordjour’s National League apprenticeship. He had been out at Stourbridge while at Wasps, but Sale crowbarred him into Sedgley Tigers. This grassroots level tuition at both clubs was invaluable.

“When I first was at Wasps I was at Stourbridge and everyone was telling me it was going to be super physical, that it was hard but it wasn’t. Around the park wasn’t that hard. The main test of me was my scrum at tighthead and I learned a lot in a short period of time of what I need to do, what I need to do with my body and what I need to learn, the little things I need to know about scrumming.

“I can’t pinpoint a specific date but yeah, I know I felt I was under pressure loads of times in the scrum and it only helps you at that age, helps you learn and get a greater understanding of what you need to be doing.”

His on-loan education over, injuries gave Opoku-Fordjour his entry into Sanderson’s first-team plans. He thrived. The coach even claimed that his apprentice even gave Leinster and Ireland loosehead Andrew Porter a torrid time in Dublin last December. “I don’t know out taking out, I’ll held my own, held my own,” modestly reckoned Opoku-Fordjour, who went to explain what it is like as a 19-year-old rookie doing well at tighhead.

“It’s more of a pride thing personally, you don’t want to be the one that goes back. You want to be the one that dominates and I feel like that is the mentality I have when I am scrumming. Everyone should have that and most people do. You have just got to keep in the fight.

“I would say I am pretty calm; as I said before I am a pretty calm guy. If it’s like a game-winning scrum I will celebrate but other than that it’s your job, you have got to do it. But it is an amazing feeling being able to dominate someone in a scrum.”

There was one bad day at the office. “I can’t remember (his name) but at Stormers there was a loosehead I just couldn’t figure out and I didn’t know what to do. Yeah, that was a person that got under my skin a little bit,” he admitted.

“But at Sale there is so many experienced boys who are willing to help you and willing to go over stuff with you to make sure you get the best out of it. It might not be that exact moment where you get the fix but I am so young that I have got time to make mistakes and there is time to learn as well.”

Time to bulk up too. “Definitely, if I want to be a tighthead prop I have got to put on the weight. I have just got to put it on. I feel like by the end of this year hopefully I can get to 115kgs and them keep pushing from there. It’s not easy but I can do it.”

It was by chance that Opoku-Fordjour fell into the game. “I would say probably 10, 11. My dad is a big fan of sports, he watches a load of sports. I started to get bigger so he decided to take me (to Broadstreet RFC). He was watching the Six Nations or something and he decided to take me down to our local rugby club and from there I fell in love with it really.

“It was just tag at this point. It was just the beating of defenders, using your footwork, your pace, that is what I really enjoyed about it. And also I got to play with my brother as well. That was a pull factor. I wouldn’t say bigger (than the rest of the kids at the time), but I was pretty fast. I was pretty fast and had decent agility.”

A Ghanaian heritage family is Opoku-Fordjour’s driving force. “I feel like it [rugby] became serious for me when I decided to go to college. There is an ACE programme that most academies have links to and for Wasps it was City of Oxford College. I’m from Coventry so I had to move there. My mum had to pay for accommodation so in my head I was yeah, I have got to go for this now. I have got to make it.

“My family, we’re pretty tight knit. I have got three brothers as well so they all keep me on track, they keep me in check. My mum as well, she is always on me trying to see what I need, trying to get the best out me, so it’s definitely my family.”

His progress in the game resulted in a recent trip to Twickenham where he was given a rising star award at the Rugby Black List celebration. “It was a great feeling. Being a part of a minority community in the game, I feel like it’s important that I got the opportunity to get recognised in that community. It was a good feeling.”

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A post shared by Asher Opoku (@asheropoku_1)

So too was helping Sale follow up their 2023 Premiership final appearance by playing his part in getting them to last month’s semi-finals. “It has been a great feeling to be involved in it. Last year I was just watching it, I wasn’t really involved but this year I was in it.

“You can just see within the boys everyone wants to fight for each other. Everyone wants the best out of each other. It’s a great feeling and I am sure next season we will hopefully get something out of it. Sale is a club where when we are on we’re on and when we’re off we get the opportunity to chill and get close to each other and I feel like in tough moments in a game that stuff really helps and that stuff helps you get far.”

While his long-term goal is to go all the way and play for the British and Irish Lions and represent England at Test level, currently it’s about succeeding with is country’s U20s. “My mum is coming over for the third game and my dad is coming down as well,” he enthused about a Championship where, two rounds in, the odds have shortened on an England versus New Zealand final at DHL Stadium on July 19.

“It’s a very special team. Yeah, we like to focus on the steps rather than the end result. I believe we can win the World Cup. I don’t want to look too far ahead… but hopefully we can push on and do what we came here to do.”

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Wonton 3 hours ago
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One game against Fiji is not enough to show that a player is ready to play the likes of South Africa. Spreading the ball wide too much increases the risk of turnovers and we turned the ball over 20 times against Fiji which is a lot more than what we did in the two England tests. We actually turned the ball over the same amount of times (20) against England in the 2019 semi final which we lost. Fiji didn’t make us pay for those turnovers but other teams will. In the 2nd test against England this year we had 100% success rate on attacking rucks. That’s the first time the AB’s have achieved this since the 2019 opening game of the RWC against South Africa. South Africa won last years RWC and Jesse Kriel did not pass once. The days of the Conrad Smith type centre might be over. Also Conrad Smith debuted in 2004 but he did not become an incumbent until Nonu did also in 2008. As for Rieko Ioane he and Jordie Barrett put in some very strong midfield hits in the 2nd test forcing turnovers several times. Rieko Ioane hasn’t played wing in years. If Proctor is moved to 13 then the best I think Ioane can hope for is an impact player off the bench. He does not have the aerial game of Caleb Clarke or the workrate of Tele’a for 11 and going to be selected over Jordan at 14. However its much too early to replace Rieko with Proctor. Rieko was excellent in the knock out rounds of the RWC. All Proctor has to show on his test CV is a good game against Fiji.

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Nick 5 hours ago
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Its almost like you read my comment on the other site on sunday morning Nick - you flagged all the same examples! 😝 Frost was motm for mine. That eg in the 56th minute in particular impressed me, nothing but sheer effort and a dupont/smith-like tracking line behind the D. Surely an effort like that from frost marries perfectly with that quote from schmidt at the start of the year about effort and work rate being 70-80% and talent is just the icing on top… What it also showed though was the players not making that effort, in that example he goes past both valetini and ikitau, and in the eg that finished with valetini scoring hunter paisami barely breaks a canter to support the break. And then there was the chase from wright and lancaster for the 2nd georgian try! One blemish - at kickoff I saw frost miss or get bumped off a few tackles and I felt like I saw what has been holding his selection back. I think because he is so big and is trying to get low to tackle, he seems to dip his head and ends up losing his balance or ability to adjust and ends up missing or making a soft hit. I think in the first 2 minutes he misses or makes 2-3 soft tackles, but you could clearly see the work rate and desire! He (the pod) also missed a kick restart or two? Also very happy to see harry wilson back in the fold. What impressed me from him wasn’t all the usual stuff he is known for, but all the other bits that usually let him down. He looked surprisingly good in the air at lineout time, physical at the breakdown, and good in the maul peeling off 3 georgians for one of the maul tries. Id have frost, skelton, wright as my 4-6 with LSL and wilson on the bench. i’m once again unconvinced by tom wirght - he was very good game 1, but game 2-3 he was back to more rocks than diamonds. There is no real other player to usurp him really so he stays in the team for now but I think Joe should put kellaway wherever he serves the team best and wright can be moved around him. Did donno do enough to overtake noah? My gut says no. They clearly had a plan to attack more so he looked better in that regard because he just had more opportunity, but they looked better off tate (who had a v good game also) then they did off donno.

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