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Joel Kpoku: 'It’s a contact sport, not touch... I got stuck in'

By Liam Heagney
Lyon's Joel Kpoku (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Joel Kpoku is a man ahead of his time. It’s chic now for English players in the Gallagher Premiership to sniff out moves across the Channel in France. Owen Farrell and Courtney Lawes, skippers for Steve Borthwick’s Test team at the recent Rugby World Cup, will be packing their bags at the end of the current season.

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Billy Vunipola could be joining them, following the slipstream of the likes of Jack Nowell, Henry Arundell, the Simmonds brothers and others who upped sticks for the 2023/24 season. None of them are trailblazers, though, compared to Kpoku.

It was winter 2021 when the ex-England U20s lock quit Saracens for a leap into the unknown, a lockdown flight out of London into Lyon where nothing was guaranteed. Pierre Mignoni had tried to sign Kpoku 18 months previously but he felt staying in the English capital was the best thing for his career at a time when rugby was plentiful and the pandemic wasn’t on the horizon.

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Things soon changed and the 125kg forward ultimately decided to give France a whirl. The switch has turned out so swimmingly that he has now agreed on a three-year deal to join Pau this summer that will keep him in the French leagues until 2027 – that will be quite a shift when you consider it was a shot to nothing when he first landed at Saint-Exupery airport two and a quarter years ago.

Why the Top 14 is a perfect fit compared to the Premiership is something the 24-year-old answered at length when he caught up with RugbyPass over Zoom before Lyon’s home victory this weekend versus Castres.

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“Various things happened away from the field,” he began, reflecting on his sudden exit from England. “I won’t go into too much detail with that but in terms of what got me over the line was the fact that the old coach of Lyon, Pierre Mignoni who brought me across, was interested for quite some time.

“When I was at Saracens my agent said he wanted me to come over and at the time I had just re-signed for Saracens. Fair play to him, he said if the opportunity changes or if Joel leaves, whatever happens, there is always going to be a door open for him. It came to November (2021) and he opened his arms and allowed me in.

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“What made my decision a lot easier was the fact that I speak French, I’m a fluent French speaker. I don’t think I would have taken the opportunity if I wasn’t French-speaking. That made my decision easier and then having various conversations with my family and friends saying you might as well leap into the unknown, go there and see what it is about.

“Thankfully in that first year, I managed to break through, managed to win a Challenge Cup. It restarted my career because I didn’t really have that much game time at Saracens because I was coming off the back of being injured.

“Coming here and getting the opportunity from Pierre and playing those games I played in, I restarted my career and, thank God, I’m still here now, playing as much as I can and trying to learn as much as I can as well because it is different to how things are run in the Premiership.

“I mean, the language was the main reason that got me over the line but it was also to play a different brand of rugby. You can see nowadays there are heaps of English players wanting to come across to play in the Top 14 because it is an attractive rugby, one of the best leagues in the world. I can say that first hand and I’m just massively grateful to be given that opportunity to play my rugby here in France. Long may it continue.

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“I’ve loved life in Lyon. Unfortunately, my time is coming to an end as I’m going to Pau for three seasons, but I couldn’t write highly enough about the city and the club. I’ve had three different coaches in the three years and it has been tough to adjust to different managements in terms of how they would like you to play, but I have shifted that and am just trying to play my best rugby regardless of what the issues are with the coaches.

“I have also changed position to the back row as well. I’m in and around both second and back row positions, which is also good for my profile because it has aided me in getting a gig at Pau because they were looking for that second row/back row player. I fitted that profile that they were after.”

Becoming a Challenge Cup winner with a 2022 final win over Toulon in Marseille remains the highlight, but a game-defining intervention last season at La Rochelle is also a candidate for his best Lyon memories. “We hadn’t won away from home in a while and we came away with a win in a really tough, quite tight game.

“I can’t remember the exact scoreline but that’s probably the highlight. On a personal note, everyone says it and I’m going to tell you, I made a try-saving tackle. We were on our line scrumming, their eight picks and goes, tries to run through. I’m at six, I get up and whack him hard underneath the ball and hold him up.

“That was a turning point which kind of won us the game. That was a highlight but the Challenge Cup definitely tops it just because it’s one where I actually was involved in a cup game and took away a win.

“Especially with everything that came from it, things that happened away from rugby when I was in the UK and coming over and getting the opportunity to play – it’s definitely the main highlight of my career so far, winning that title.”

Kpoku has thrived amid the juddering French physicality. The global game has often been accused of going soft, but that description doesn’t apply in France. His first game was a baptism, damaging his MCL and suffering a syndesmosis, but that setback only left him hungry for more collisions.

“Despite everything that is coming into the game with tackle heights and whatnot, the fans love the fact that they get to see these big shots, they get to see people throwing their bodies on the line. I’d say the main thing is we can’t get away from the sport being a contact sport which is abrasive.

“It’s potentially having career-ending injuries week in, week out and it’s one of those where mentally you have got to go into the game thinking, ‘I’m going to put my body on the line, what comes from it comes from it’. There is no point in having those second thoughts and having doubts about yourself because that is what injuries start to play a part in the sport.

“I mean, like I said, it’s a sport that is abrasive. Fans love those big tackles, they love those big carries, they love everything about it. That’s probably the main thing about it, it’s a contact sport at the end of the day, not touch,” he said, going on to reference his painful introduction to the Top 14.

“My first game against La Rochelle when I came over, unfortunately I got injured. Did my MCL and my syndesmosis, my ankle. I mean, that whole pack, I can name a few names like Will Skelton, Uini Atonio, Greg Alldritt, those players running square at you and you have to tackle them. I got stuck in. That was the highlight. It was like, ‘I’m in this now, let’s go. This is what it is like in the Top 14!’

“Every week you are coming up against a few of the best players in the world in each team, but there is also that unpredictability of the league in terms of any team can beat anyone regardless of who you are. It doesn’t matter if you are top of the league, they can get beaten by a team at the bottom.

“That’s exciting in itself because you are going into games thinking this is going to be like a final pretty much because every team wants to win to get that top six and qualify for the knockout stage. They are probably the two main things, the unpredictability of the league and also the physicality which I love being involved in and getting stuck in and playing against these big boys who I never really saw back in the UK playing for Saracens. So it’s nice.”

Kpoku has manned up in the process, developing a mental robustness he didn’t have in England where the stress of constantly being in and out of the Saracens team gnawed away and took its toll. “Good question actually; the mental side of things as to when I was in the UK is completely different now. Sometimes I’d be in the team and the following week I’d be out and having to mentally prepare myself for that was quite tough.

“At the moment the coaches have given me the freedom of going out there and just expressing myself in my rugby, just doing what I do best and not change anything in particular. It’s more the trust of the coaches within myself that they have given me to just go out there and play my rugby and not have to worry about anything else.

“That has been the main thing for me in terms of that breakthrough, shall we say. It’s one that I’m grateful for. It’s tough mentally to play week in, week out coming up against a few of the best teams in the world at the moment, but nothing really changes – it’s just me going out there and doing my best really.

Kpoku Lyon Top 14
Joel Kpoku carries for Lyon against Perpignan in January (Photo by Francis Bompard/AFP via Getty Images)

“I don’t think I’ve changed much in terms of how I play. Work rate, I have kept that in my game. From being at a club like Saracens, that was a massive thing that they always speak about, that work rate. But then also switching over to that physicality, you have to also man up and stop these big guys coming at you.

“If you don’t have the mentality to do so you will get trampled and run over. I don’t think I have changed too much of my game. Position potentially, that is the only change that has actually occurred in how I play because the club wants back rows to play differently to what I would play at second row.

“Be more lucid and just getting around the park and being that workhorse in the back row. I’d say that is the only thing, changing positions really. Other than that I have kept how I played in the UK to now.”

Just seven weeks ago, Kpoku was back at Saracens for an Investec Champions Cup tie. What was it like retracing his steps? “It was just another game. I didn’t really have any qualms about the boys not turning up or whatnot. We were winning at half-time and putting up a good performance against an experienced side and we had a young team.

“I just said it’s just another rugby match, to be honest. I obviously had a few of their boys trying to get into my head and trying to get me away from my game but I didn’t really allow it to get to me. I just concentrated on myself and did what was right for my team.”

He’ll continue to do for Lyon for the next few months. Then comes his next adventure – helping Pau to become a consistent top-six challenger. “It was more the project in terms of what the club and where they are trying to go. In previous years they haven’t been top half of the table and it has taken a few years for them to build a team and build that structure in terms of building a young foundation and whatnot.

“It was I wanted to be part of a team where they haven’t got many superstars. They have signed one in Sam Whitelock, which I’m massively excited about, playing alongside to learn off which I can’t wait for. But they haven’t had too many superstars on the team.

“For me, that is attractive because it is a team that has come from the bottom to work their way up and I want to be part of that and want to add as much as I can to that moving forward and do my bit and hopefully in a few years winning some titles with them which would be amazing.”

What is already amazing is the story of how the three Kpoku brothers – Joel, his twin brother Jonathan and younger brother Junior – are all making their living playing rugby in France having started out in England. Jonathan is at Bourgoin, with current England U20s pick Junior a recent Racing 92 recruit.

“It’s nice, especially having my twin brother not too far from me in Bourgoin which is only half an hour away. We see each other as much as we can if we are not busy, and my young brother is now following in our footsteps and going through his journey to the top. My parents are very proud of all three of us playing our rugby out here.”

With both parents hailing from the Congo, Kpoku would love to get a rugby programme up and running there. Who knows, if he never plays Test rugby for England, a country that currently isn’t even listed in World Rugby’s 112-team rankings could be a pioneering outpost for him instead.

“We are planning on going to Congo, potentially next summer which would be the only time I would be able to get anything up and running. I’m still in contact with my uncle who is friends with the president of Congo… I spoke to him about this potential foundation in Congo and I need to push that on.

“That is something I’d love to do for sure in terms of taking rugby there and promoting it because I don’t think it’s very well known out there, so it would be nice for a professional like myself to get people together. Even if it is just me and my brothers, who are professional players, going there and kickstarting something, it would be amazing for us to do that.

“Obviously, I’d want to represent England as well at some point. That’s the only thing [non-English-based players are currently ineligible for selection]. I have got three years at Pau but who knows what can happen in those three years. We shall see; we’ll wait and see.”

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