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'I don't speak to anyone at Saracens… they didn't make the effort'

By Liam Heagney
Joel Kpoku of Lyon celebrates after their victory during the EPCR Challenge Cup Final match between Lyon and RC Toulon at Stade Velodrome on May 27, 2022 in Marseille, France. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The rugby life can be amazingly rewarding and unexpected. Take Joel Kpoku. A couple of weeks ago, the Lyon forward bounded into a nondescript room at an off-the-beaten-track M40 hotel outside London full of the joys of winter and the irony was unmissable.


Just 13 months earlier, his career was in a rut. He had backed out of his contract at Saracens and was in limbo due to visa issues regarding working in France. Merde.

It all came right in the end, though, and the confidence that now flooded through the 23-year-old was quite striking given the ‘halfway house’ location of this interview.

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A 40-minute spin north would bring Kpoku to the Woollams, the Sarries training ground in St Albans where his development crashed and burned. Twenty minutes south and he would be at the airport where life changed hugely a year ago when he took a deep breath and journeyed into the unknown with his boarding pass.

Given a prompt by RugbyPass and the memory of that flight to the continent came flooding back. “Scary, scary, it was very, very scary,” he recalled about his jump off the deep end into brand new surroundings.

“I left Sarries and there were still two years on my contract. I decided to terminate my contract, Ieft in October but I didn’t actually get out there (to Lyon) until November due to my visa being declined the first time and having to re-apply, etc.


“When the visa was eventually accepted I literally packed my bags the night before and just f-ed off to France. I found myself in France going, ‘Okay, don’t know anyone here’. I had the team manager holding the board with my name on it. ‘Hi, I’m Joel’. This is real now. I’m in France and I was injured as well at the time, so I wasn’t actually playing.

“I was, ‘I’m here now, your new career, your new journey is about to commence’. But looking back it has made me the person I am today. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it wasn’t for me taking that leap of faith, getting out and backing my decision. I’m grateful, massively grateful.

“I didn’t actually want to go to France,” he added. “When I actually decided to leave Saracens I spoke to my agent and said, ‘Any teams in the UK?’ I was so confident being in my comfort zone and not being too far away from my family. He mentioned the teams that were interested and I didn’t really want to go to any of them so now I said, ‘Do you know what, why not go to France, take the opportunity?’

“It was tough, being alone and not knowing anyone in a completely new environment and a new city. It was very, very hard but Jordan Taufua took me under his wing when I arrived and I spent Christmas with him. That was what made me settle in a bit more and I was like, ‘Okay, this is my new home’. Now I have got my missus living with me, it’s nice.”


The cordial 25-minute interview that Kpoku impressively staged with a group of about ten round table journalists that he didn’t know was a take-your-breath-away sitdown. Usually, when youngsters face a large media posse, exchanges are quite stilted. Clipped answers. Awkward body language. Proceedings quickly called to a halt.

Not with Joel. No punches were pulled when discussing his Saracens exit, the rule preventing non-England-based players from playing for their country, his in-game improvement, Top 14 training, and also his inspiring spirit of generosity in planning a rugby foundation in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo capital where his parents Joseph and Claudia hail from.

First, his difficult situation on the fringes at Saracens, the club that Lyon host in a Heineken Champions Cup round two game this Saturday. “How frustrated was I at Saracens? Everything happens for a reason.

“I wouldn’t have been given this opportunity if it hadn’t been for them not playing me and moving to France. Everything happens for a reason, so it’s not one that I’m frustrated or angry with Saracens.

“They had amazing players ahead of me for so many years and it would have taken a lot for me to push those guys out of the way and play. Not to say I didn’t play because I had a few opportunities – but everything happens for a reason.”

So this prospect of playing against them so soon after leaving? “I’m excited. Words can’t describe the excitement and the fire I have in my belly to come up against these guys. It’s one I’m looking forward to. That’s all I can say,” he explained, adding he hasn’t been in touch with anyone from the London club since quitting in October 2021.

Saracens Championship
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“No, to be quite honest. I don’t speak to anyone at the club… It’s just they didn’t make the effort to contact me, so I didn’t see the point of me doing the same. I’m comfortable with where I am. I have got the right people around me now. I don’t lose sleep over it.

“I don’t want to say the wrong thing here but I’m going to be as honest as I can. As an insider who was there at the time, you’d think it was a very inclusive club and whatnot. Not to bad name them, but as an outsider, that (silence) speaks volumes in terms of the lads not even looking out for me.

“I could say I did the same but it is just more maybe a how it is, but culturally me being in it was great. Now being outside it I learned a few lessons at the club so I’m not going to speak any further on that. But yeah, I just know what type of people and the type of club… I don’t have anything to prove to Saracens. That is not my club.”

Kpoku is currently contracted at Lyon until the summer of 2024 and unless he moves home, the uncapped Test rookie – who played in the 2018 Junior World Cup final – can’t be considered by England. It’s a rule he wants to be scrapped as he believes playing overseas is beneficial for players wanting to play at international level.

“I’d say first-hand I’d like the rule of that overseas law to be abolished to be honest because it prevents players from going abroad, prevents different players from experiencing the cultures.

“Yeah, we could say Sarries are obviously a lot better (as a rugby team) but it isn’t just that. There is the culture, the different brand of rugby that people want to do but if you’re on the brink of international rugby you don’t really get that opportunity to do that.

“It’s one I can see a load of players going across but also I do hope that one day that law is abolished because I’d love to play for England, love to play for my country but I can’t do that… Look at South Africa, the number of players playing overseas all across the globe and still being successful.

Premiership breakout players
Joel Kpoku will be keen to build on two productive seasons with the England U20s. (Photo by Amilcar Orfali/Getty Images)

“England can replicate that, allowing players to go overseas and play their best rugby and experience different cultures. It’s not just because the money is good but also to experience a different brand of rugby that they obviously wouldn’t have played before.

“For any young player thinking of wanting to leave, do it. Go off and do it. It will probably be the best thing you can do because you can always come back. Zach Mercer is the prime example, him getting a callback. And look at him, he has massively improved his game over the years and now he is going to be in the World Cup squad.”

When Kpoku spoke, Eddie Jones was still clinging on as the England coach before his sacking. The lock had trained with Jones’ squad as a teenager but any hope of a second look-in was dead in the water after his involvement in the Barbarians’ high jinx that resulted in the cancellation of an October 2020 lockdown game versus England at Twickenham.

“That (training call) was post-2018 Junior World Cup. It was a shock. You’re walking into rooms and seeing guys you see on TV when you’re younger and to be next to them and training with them, I actually shared a room with Courtney Lawes which I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d ever do.

“But in terms of training, it was tough. Definitely a step up from what I was used to and you could definitely see the level of what it takes to be an international. I’m happy I had the experience because now I know what level I need to get to and hopefully with the playing time (in France), I get to that level and long may it continue.”

Given his Lyon form, which culminated in last May’s European Challenge Cup success, would Kpoku ever pick up the blower to an England coach and demand a look-in? “I personally won’t reach out.

“I’m just going to play my best rugby for my club and then whatever comes from there comes from there but it’s not one where I’d be reaching out to him saying, ‘Hello, I want to play for England’. I want to earn it and have him calling me to say, ‘We’re really interested in how you have been playing and we want to see where we can take your game’.

“It’s not (about) the money side of things. Like, I am comfortable about where I am at the moment and it would take an awful lot. It would also have to be 100 per cent where the coach, whoever it is, calling me saying, ‘You will be playing, you’ll be in the team’.

“Not one that is just saying. ‘Oh, you’re going to be in the training team’ because it would be unfair for me to just leave what I have in France to come here. It would take a lot.”

Tell us more about your attraction to French club rugby. “There is a pretty obvious one, the cash. I’m not going to sit here and lie. That is what entices players to go. I’m not going to be naive to sit here and say that wouldn’t (be an attraction) but also the brand of rugby we play out there is massively exciting.

“Look at France for example, winning a Grand Slam, winning all their games in the autumn and coming up in their rugby. It’s rugby I’m guessing all players would want to be a part of it. The league is so unpredictable you just don’t know who is going to win a game. It’s a very exciting league to be a part of.”

You mentioned the improvement in the likes of Mercer, what about your own progression? “I’m just free to play my own game. Being at my previous club I was always trying to compare to Maro (Itoje). I was always told, ‘Look what he does, look at this, look at that’.

“At this club, my old coach (Pierre Mignoni), when he got me in he said: ‘Just be yourself, I know how good you are. I wouldn’t have got you here if I didn’t think you were good enough. Just play your own game’.

“That is what I have done and it has worked in my favour because I’m able to play how I play and also now I have added being a (lineout) caller which is something new to me in French. It’s not one where they have rushed me into doing it.

“I’ve said I want to do it, I want to improve my game and take that step forward and do it in a different language. It has helped me big time. Long may it continue.

“Coming from a club where I was pretty low in the pecking order to quickly moving across to France and getting a lot more game time than I expected in my first half-year was massive for my development. Playing with some of the best players around was incredible.

“Then achieving what we have as a team was incredible. It couldn’t have been written any better. I had no words on the day to describe it [the Challenge Cup final win] and still don’t. It’s a pinch-me moment, one that I want to replicate.”

Training is fueling that ambition. “There is a lot more contact in France, a lot more players who are very passionate in amongst the team,” he explained when asked to compare Lyon training to what he knew at Saracens.

“One player puts a bad shot in everyone else takes the lead, myself included in that. But yeah, it is very, very different. A lot longer as well. We are on the pitch for about two hours sometimes but that is with lineouts, scrums, straight into the rugby.”

Joel and his brother Jonathan are no longer at Saracens but a Kpoku connection with the club still exists. “I have got a younger brother Junior who is at Sarries now, under 17s. Bigger than me believe it or not. I hate standing next to him. I was with him a couple of weeks ago at his school, Finborough down near Ipswich, and he is massive, a tall fella who has put on some size as well.

“He is another we are hoping can kind of go down his own route and do the best in his own career rather than saying, ‘I’m Joel and Jonathan’s brother and I want to be a rugby player because they are’. He has got his head screwed on and knows what he wants.

As for Joel’s twin brother Jonathan, he too is now trying his luck across the Channel. “He left Sarries a few seasons ago to go to Coventry and he’s now in France. He plays for a league one team, Bourgoin. It’s not too far from me, half an hour away. I was with him recently. We see each other a fair few times.”

When the time comes you can be sure the brothers will give Joel a helping hand once he sets up the Kpoku rugby foundation in Congo, a project that will take another step forward when he visits the African country during the 2023 off-season. “Both parents are from the Congo so we spoke French from birth. I’m lucky. Both mum and dad were born and bred in Congo and moved across (to England) at 17 and 18 for studies. All my siblings and I were born in the UK.

“The first time we were in Congo was in 2007 for mum and dad’s wedding. I’m looking to go back there next summer because I want to start a foundation, to start rugby and some academics for the less privileged kids in the poorer areas. I have got a few links… and I will be going there to get a plan together.

“I didn’t know rugby until I was 12 (in London). I never knew the sport and I’m guessing that people in those areas of Africa wouldn’t know it, wouldn’t have a clue as to what it is. It would be massive for them. They would be, ‘Wow, there is a professional coming to us’.

“It can be done. Not to say I’m going to form a professional team. No. It’s just to get the sport more global in and around that part of the world. It’s one thing I’m planning on doing and is something I want to do post-rugby in terms of getting that really big, but it’s now just laying the fundamentals in Kinshasa. I didn’t realise how much admin it takes. There is a lot to it, it’s a gradual thing.”


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