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Junior Kpoku: 'That wasn't down to me, it was all behind closed doors'

By Liam Heagney
Junior Kpoku sings the England national anthem (Photo by Bob Bradford/CameraSport via Getty Images)

Unbelievable is a word that the delightfully giddy Junior Kpoku can’t stop himself from using over and over and over again when reflecting on his rumbustious, career-making year. Fresh out of Finborough School, the 18-year-old signed on the dotted line last August to serve his professional apprenticeship at Rob Baxter’s Exeter. The dramatic thing is, he wasn’t long packing up again in Devon and taking a giant October leap across the Channel. Stuart Lancaster’s Racing 92 had made an offer he couldn’t refuse, especially with a family illness unfolding.

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Eight months later, he was striding across a hotel lobby in downtown Cape Town, giddy to tell RugbyPass about the wonder of it all, a double-jobbing spring where he made his Top 14 debut in a Parisian pack that included Siya Kolisi and also helped England U20s to impressively snatch Six Nations glory with a flourish down the road in Pau, the Pyrenees city that will be home for Kpoku’s older brother Joel in 2024/25.

Racing lost the derby at home in Kpoku’s French top-flight debut and they were beaten again the following week when he came off the bench at Bordeaux, but you’d never tell he was 0/2 in his 22-minute Top 14 involvement going by the enthusiastic nature of the lock’s bubbly patter.

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“It’s beautiful,” he beamed, describing the magnetism of the Top 14 with a huge smile. “Compared to the Premier League in the UK, it’s a whole different ball game. The physicality, the speed of it is much quicker. Physicality is unbelievable. It was over the moon when I was playing against Stade Francais at home, making my debut at home with mum and dad. It was unbelievable playing with big names in the Racing team and opposite us. It was unbelievable really.”

Was he nervous? “100 per cent, especially when you are waiting for Stuart to say, ‘Go on, Junior, you’re getting on now’. You go, ‘Okay, cool. Let’s go and get the job done’.” Memories of what quickly unfolded remain vivid. “I got the ball down the wing, just legged it really and got tackled in the 22,” he said before describing the subsequent involvement that was his welcome to the big time. “Having (Sekou) Macalou run at me at full pace was oomph, he is a strong boy. I got him down, of course, but he is strong boy.”

You get the affirming sense that Kpoku can only rapidly develop given his grand surroundings, which include a stellar cast on and off the field. “Siya is a big role model to me personally and to the team with his voice,” he said in praise of the South African double-winning Rugby World Cup captain.

“He is unbelievable. It’s like a dream come true playing with one of the best rugby players in the world. Winning back-to-back World Cups in unbelievable. Playing for the Springboks and playing at the Sharks (before that), he has just given me so many details into my clearouts, my lineouts, into tackling, carrying, all this stuff he has given me. I take it with two hands really.

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“Some of it is more personal, it’s behind closed doors what he says really. But it’s a dream come true playing with him and his co-World Cup winner Trevor (Nyakane), Gael Fickou, Cameron (Woki), Henry Arundell, all these names. It’s unbelievable. It’s (about) taking it with two hands.”

The unbelievables keep on coming. “Having Stuart Lancaster, Yanick (Nyanga), Dimitri (Szarzewski), Freddie (Michalak), all these big names coaching us, is unbelievable. The amount of information they give you on and off the pitch to become a better rugby player is unbelievable.

“Freddie with his strike plays, how you are meant to run and if you are in defence, what you are reading when they are giving you a picture. And Dimitri in lineouts has given me the opportunity to better read the lineout and it helps what I’m doing with England.

“It’s going to be really good to see what the team can do. Hopefully we can win the Top 14 next year. Next year we know we have got a lot of work to do, that is what our goal is really with all the players. Head down, try and win the Top 14. That’s the goal.

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“I have signed for three years, going into my second year now and we will see what happens. It’s unbelievable. Stuart has spoken to me what he wants to see in this World Cup and what he wants and expects from me when I get back into pre-season. Hopefully I can deliver and prove I can do the job for the team.

“My French is really good. 100 per cent. Living with my dad and my mum is based in the UK. The people, the culture is much different to the UK as in everyone is more friendly. The rugby environment is more friendly. I don’t know how it is in the UK now because I was only in a professional environment at Exeter for three months, I didn’t really get the feel.

 

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“But in Racing, everyone is on the same level. There isn’t any big dogs. Everyone just goes and sees the same physio unless you are espoir and you go and see a different physio. Everyone is on the same level really. So everyone is grounded, gets the work done really.”

When he debuted for Exeter off their pre-season bench versus Bristol, calling Paris La Defense Arena his home was something unimaginable for Kpoku. “It was due to the family really,” he explained, taking up the story. “My dad was really ill and my agent contacted me, ‘There is a massive opportunity ahead of you’.

“I wanted to see what the opportunity was and I took it with two hands and looked after my family. It was basically a family decision really. France wasn’t really on my mind when I went there to Exeter. It was mostly getting involved with England, playing my games with Exeter as it was a good club to be at.”

The curious thing is that he is still permitted to be involved with England even though he is now based in France and already a first-team Top 14 player months before his 19th birthday in September. There have been multiple headlines about other players sacrificing their Test careers to take up offers in the French leagues.

There’s Jack Willis, for instance, the back-rower who capped his first season in France by added Top 14 glory on Friday night in Marseille to the Champions Cup title he had helped Toulouse to win last month. They are off-limits to Steve Borthwick’s squad due to the RFU regulation that you must be based in England in order to be selected at Test level.

That restriction doesn’t apply at age-grade level, leaving Kpoku in the privileged position where he has been jumping on the train from Paris to London and hooking up with Mark Mapletoft England U20s squad. “That wasn’t down to me,” he said about the decision taken over his eligibility to play for his country despite Racing – and not a Gallagher Premiership club – paying his wages.

“It was all behind closed doors, I’ve got nothing to do with that. I just still have the opportunity to play really. I don’t know. I take it with two hands, it’s a brilliant privilege to be still able to wear the England shirt even though I am based in France. I take it with two hands.”

A Test rugby decision will surely come in time, though. “Yeah, yeah, everyone asks me where do you see yourself, you’re playing U20s, are you getting involved in Steve’s team? It’s a card probably on the table maybe. I just need to settle down, play my rugby and that will look after itself and we will see what happens in the near future.”

Reflecting on his first year in France, Kpoku would recommend it as a pathway for fellow England youngsters. “100 per cent. In the UK if you are singing at a club you need to make sure it is the right club for you. You know you are going to get some game time but I know in France you are in the espoirs and are playing every weekend at a good high level with pro players who haven’t got selected to play first team.

“That’s one reason why I chose to go to France because I am playing every week with my club, not on loan to another club and when I come back to my club I need to learn and catch up (like in England). Everything at Racing is the same, from the first team to the espoirs, 18s, 17s, 16s, we all play the same rugby so it is just fluent when you step up.”

It was rugby league where Kpoku took his first rugby steps. “It started when I was about seven at London Skolars where Dave Roberts invited me and that is when my rugby took off. I was then invited to the Sarries when I got to 13 years old, that is when I got into their development programme stuff and that is when age-grade took over as well. At Skolars you could just fly into tackles really. It was lovely just flying into tackles, taking people out really. That’s what I loved and it has now taken me to where I am.

“The U20s came a year early. I never thought of playing U20s. I just thought I was going to make it into 18s and see where my rugby takes me but this is unbelievable playing with the U20s and winning a Six Nations with them was unbelievable. Such a good group of boys here.

“It was such a good game to play (in France in March). Everyone just unleashed themselves, as in everyone knew their roles, everyone just wanted to win. If we lose, we’re not winning the Six Nations. Everyone just had that mindset of keep going boys, we’re in this, we can win it and we won it. Unbelievable… it just shows how much talent we have in our team and it’s interesting to see what we can do in a World Cup really.”

Kpoku is a religious soul. “100 per cent. He does everything, glory to him really. Glory to God. When we get to the stadium, for a good 10 minutes I start listening to him, praying and yeah, when it’s time to go out I’m switched on and he is right behind me and looking after me.”

The surest thing you can say about Kpoku is that he is a big boy. “Always, always, always,” he chuckled. “U13 I was probably a foot taller than everyone really. Heavy as well. I was a heavy boy. I was probably fat I think before I slimmed down into the professional environment. I remember walking on and everyone was just looking going, ‘Wow, who the flip is that kid?’ It was unbelievable.”

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England U20
40 - 21
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The is a limit to how gigantic he wants to become. “121kgs this year has been the heaviest I have been. Stuart wants me around 124, 125, not just fat but as in more bigger,” he said, describing his weight before referencing his height. “204cm. Still growing. I want to stop at 205. I don’t want to be 7ft. No, no. 6ft 7’, 6ft 8’. That’s it.”

Maro Itoje was his teenage role model. “When he plays for England and Sarries, the detail he brings into his lineouts and into his defence, his tackling, when he needs to get into a position, when he needs to run a line is unbelievable. That is where I want to try and be really, be better than his really.

“I’d see training with the Sarries team and everything and it was just like, ‘Wow, what he is doing is unbelievable’. He knows me because of my brothers. Every time my dad dropped my brothers off you’d see him walking and he would be like, ‘Alright, mate’.”

That dedication has rubbed off in the way Kpoku is brushing up on lineout detail in Cape Town. “I always come down when everyone is not here at around 11:30 (to the lobby) and I go to bed at 12 every day, that is my thing, I need to get my lineouts in my head. I am studying Argentina, getting their stuff in my head as I need to steal those balls.”

It was perhaps in the head a bit too much as Kpoku was yellow carded in the second half at Athlone on Saturday but he quickly redeemed himself, making the breakdown steal that ignited the counter attack for Jack Bracken’s hat-trick try in England’s impressive 40-21 opening round win.

“I don’t like putting pressure on myself. I just take it day by day. You can’t really control the outcome. Something we do in camp is we grow the rose every day, we stick together. A brotherhood. Stick together when we are training; if we drop a ball or knock-on, we just bring each other together. That brings us closer.”

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Alexander 21 days ago

What a nice bloke!

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