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'I was kind of lost in the rugby world, my name had gone quiet'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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Joel Kpoku can’t quite believe it has turned out so good so quickly for him at Lyon. His December Top 14 debut was a disaster, injury sidelining him for nine weeks, but he has recently generated an impressive head of steam, playing a pivotal part in ambushing league leaders Montpellier before then picking off Glasgow and Wasps in Europe on successive weekends.

That run out against the English club was especially pleasing, his man of the match contribution getting his name back out there after the chatter about his potential had long gone quiet. He had been one of the stars of the Marcus Smith-led England age-grade team that reached the 2018 final of the World Rugby Championships, losing out to France in the decider in Beziers, and was touted for great things.

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Trouble was, he fell between the cracks at Saracens. He had a good run at it over the disrupted 2019/20 season, starting in a dozen of his 26 appearances on either side of the lockdown. However, his involvement in the game-cancelling Barbarians fiasco dirtied his bib and what followed at his London club was a frustrating descent down the pecking order which culminated in him hightailing it away from the StoneX with last November’s surprise announcement that he was off to France.

Six months later and with a Challenge Cup final fixture versus Toulon awaiting next Friday in Toulon, Kpoku is a lock with the weight of the world now lifted off his shoulders. “It was the game time element side of things but then also I had things going on off the field as well that I kind of just wanted to start afresh and get away from,” he said when asked to explain why he reversed out of the Saracens so quickly and so unexpectedly.

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Joel Kpoku | Le French Rugby Podcast | EP 30
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Joel Kpoku | Le French Rugby Podcast | EP 30

“Speaking to Saracens, I’m thankfully for them allowing me to cut my contract short. I spoke to them and they said it was probably the right idea for you to start afresh, especially with everything that had gone on. So that was also a reason behind the sudden leave.

“Game time was the priority but then also to experience a different brand of rugby and put myself out there again because I felt I was kind of lost in the rugby world, shall we say. My name had gone quiet, especially after the Junior World Cup. I was looking to rejuvenate myself and get myself back out there…

“My confidence was low. Even when I was given a shot, coming off the bench or starting, going into it I wasn’t 100 per cent mentally ready because I knew the coaches were looking at me and if I do slip up I am probably out of the team and won’t get into the team again. I was under a lot of pressure within myself.

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“I had also lost the love for the game at the same time just because I was training and holding a bag every single week. Mentally it was draining but looking back on it maybe that was the right thing for me because who knows, this opportunity may not have arisen if I was playing at Saracens. I’m very thankful to Lyon for picking me up and getting the confidence back into me.

“Pierre (Mignoni) has been following me since the 2018 World Cup final, he was looking at me from then on and tried to pick me up two years ago but I had already resigned, but he managed to pick me up in November and got his hands on me.

“I asked my agent if there were there any teams in England interested. He came back and I think he said Bath but I was like, I didn’t really want to go to Bath. Nothing against them, so then Lyon came about and I spoke to my close ones, my parents and my family, and they said you might as well go for it.

“If it doesn’t work out at least you have tried it rather than regretting it later on in your life where you are, ‘I should have taken it’. I took a leap of faith and thankfully it worked out for me so far. Hopefully, that continues.”

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That leap of faith, though, suffered an immediate cruel setback as a post-Christmas Top 14 Lyon debut was cut short for Kpoku. “I ruptured my MCL and had syndesmosis in my ankle,” he winced. “I felt very useless at the time. That period was very tough for me mentally because I had left England, moved to France all alone and then got injured in that first game in the 33rd minute.

“But I had the right support around me. Fair play to the medical staff, they really stuck by me and got me back fit, back to playing again. It was mentally tough but it was one that I look back on and if anything it has made me a stronger man today, so I’m thankful for it. It wasn’t easy shall we say, it wasn’t easy.

That first game against a big La Rochelle pack, I was like, ‘Wow, I have never seen humongous human beings opposite me ever before’. It’s a very physical league and I like that element of the game, hitting things and running into brick walls and whatnot. If anything that will bring the best out of me.

“It is completely different to what I am used to so it’s trying to adapt my game to help the systems we have got here, whether that is in set-piece or open play, whatever it is, just trying to adapt my game, take each game as it comes and take it to new heights personally for me. Hopefully, I have done that and will continue to do so.

“I didn’t have any expectation because the move was so sudden and happened very, very quickly but from watching the rugby brand they play they are a joie type of team, they play from anywhere, make things happen, they have got incredible names in the team, especially Josh (Josua Tuisova), Romain (Taofifenua), Dylan (Cretin) and other players like that so there is a great bunch of lads here. The city itself is incredible, the food, everything about it is nice and the club have made me feel really welcome from the backroom staff to the playing squad. I am really enjoying it so far.”

What has particularly helped Kpoku settle in at Lyon is he is fluent in French. “Both my parents are from the Congo, so French is my first language from birth. I’m a fluent French speaker and that also was what made my decision a lot easier to come out.”

The Londoner’s family background is fascinating and he is hoping to reconnect next year with his African roots as plans are afoot to set up a Congolese rugby foundation. “Dad moved around due to university. He moved to Switzerland when he was 16, stayed there for two years and then moved to England at 18. And then my mum came over with her family, with her brothers and sisters, at the age of 18 as well but they knew each other from Kinshasa in DRC and met up in the UK.

“There were better opportunities here in terms of work, education, just a better life because back then there was a lot of politics going on, civil wars in the country which are still going on. Back then it was a lot worse and mum’s parents wanted to get away from it and bring their children up in a better lifestyle.

“The last time I went back was 2007, I was eight and it was for my mum and dad’s wedding. But I looking to go back there next year because I am hopefully going to start a rugby foundation out there not too far from where my parents lived.

“There is a lot of planning taking place at the moment with various contacts that are currently there, my uncles and aunties,” he said, explaining how Congolese links to rugby are limited as far as he knows to himself, his twin brother Jonathan and French dup Cameron Woki and Yannick Nyanga.”

The Kpokus twins initially grew up in Hackney before moving to Southgate at the age of ten and it was at secondary school where a PE teacher got them started on a rugby journey that linked them with London Skolars rugby league before Saracens amateurs led to academy offers for both.

“I didn’t know anything about rugby. The area was more football. I didn’t know rugby existed, I didn’t know what the ball looked like until I went to secondary school and my PE teacher was like, ‘I think you and your brother could be good at this, shall we form a team?’ I was, ‘Not really but if you want to, let’s give it a shot’. When I first played I hated getting muddy, I hated the contact element of things but it later grew on me so I then started enjoying it.

“A mate of ours who was our neighbour, his older brother played for the Saracens amateurs he and he basically invited us to one of the training sessions. We went and then at U16s, me and my brother got picked up by Richard Hill at Saracens. He invited us to go down to Saracens academy and that is when our careers kicked on.”

Jonathan Kpoku’s career is currently mothballed. “<ahref=”https://www.coventrytelegraph.net/sport/rugby/saracens-rugby-rumours-transfer-news-20991748″>He has left Coventry and is looking for a team at the moment. He is also carrying a knee injury,” reported Joel, whose England trail went quite following an August 2018 call-up from Eddie Jones. “No, there has not been any contact with Eddie Jones since then.

At the moment I’m 100 per cent focused on playing for Lyon and getting as much game time as I can. I’m here for another two more years (summer 2024). I know I can’t play for England or go to any camps from here. All I can do is purely focus on my time with Lyon,” he said, adding that representing France through his Congolese roots hadn’t crossed his mind. “For the time being, no, I wouldn’t say so as I am purely focusing on Lyon. My intentions are to play for my club and whatever comes from that comes from that.”

One thing the soon-to-be 23-year-old does want to quickly happen is to nip in the bud the comparisons people make between him and Maro Itoje. The Itoje likeness was something mentioned on BT Sport last weekend, but he wants to become known as a top player in his own right “I’d like that to be the case as soon as possible, to be honest.

That side of things has rattled me, that I am still compared to Maro because he is an exceptional player, yes, but I am trying to create my own name really and not trying to be compared with anybody else. To get the man of the match, I was very surprised but it is one I will take on board and hopefully keep at it. It’s taking each game as it comes and keeping my consistency and taking my game to another level.”

Next up in opposition it’s Eben Etzebeth. “It’s one where I can’t go into a shell. He is a human being just like me. I know he has achieved amazing things in his career but at the same time when we are on that park he is the opposition so for me, it is concentrating on myself and not focusing too much on what I have opposite me in Etzebeth.”

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