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FEATURE Asher Opoku-Fordjour: 'Sale, England, the Lions... I want to do it all'

Asher Opoku-Fordjour: 'Sale, England, the Lions... I want to do it all'
5 months ago

For five solid minutes of his midweek media session, Alex Sanderson sung long and loud about Asher Opoku-Fordjour, where his burgeoning prop had come from and, more enticingly, where he might be going.

Sanderson holding court is always a tour de force and when offered the platform to talk up his hotshot, the Sale gaffer gave it both barrels.

“Asher is still doing things I’ve never seen a 19-year-old do at tighthead,” he said. Sanderson marvelled at Opoku-Fordjour’s “mega” core strength. His precocious scrummaging nous and remarkable dynamism around the field was labelled “as rare as teddy bear s**t!”

We are talking about Opoku-Fordjour because of his soaring ascent to Sharks ranks. An injury to James Harper pitched him into matchday squads and opposite a host of heavyweight opponents. He had a crack at Joe Marler at The Stoop. He steadied a crumbling Sale scrum in the RDS with Andrew Porter, then Cian Healy, trying to dismantle him. He shone against Newcastle and Stade Francais and where normally a rookie prop gets habitually concertinaed early in his career, Opoku-Fordjour has only toiled once so far, oddly against fellow greenhorn Tarek Haffar of Northampton.

Asher Opoku-Fordjour has made four Premiership appearances off the bench this season (Photo by Stephen White – CameraSport via Getty Images)

“I did not this see this coming,” he tells RugbyPass. “I wanted to, maybe next year, break in and have a few games here and there but this year, definitely not.

“I’m so thankful to Al and the coaches for giving me the opportunity so I can do what I do. I haven’t really had time to sit and think about what I was doing; I’ve just had to get on with it. It all came really quick.”

It’s not just Sanderson who sees vast potential. Marler, interviewed on the Quins bench by TNT Sports, said this of the man he’d just faced: “I have got a big thing about young, up-and-coming front-rowers… this guy, number 18, I like the look of”. There was no rousing pep talk from the old timer to the pup afterwards, just quiet acknowledgement of a job well done.

It’s good to see a lot of black people in the game now. There are quite a few of us, it’s good the game is changing and adapting to different things.

“It’s an honour to hear it from a player who has been doing it for so long,” Opoku-Fordjour says. “It’s just validation from someone of that magnitude who thinks I can grow as far as that. We just shook hands post-match and he said to keep going.

“I’ve got Sale boys like Nic Schonert, Si McIntyre, boys who have been doing it for ages now, and they know the game inside out. They are always in my ear helping me.”

Any young player needs a mentor, but the old maxim that “if you can see it, you can be it” has resonance in rugby, a sport in dire need of broadening its appeal and attracting players from different backgrounds and ethnicities. Opoku-Fordjour is Ghanaian and most of his extended family live in Accra, the capital city. He jokes about retiring there when rugby is finished. In Kyle Sinckler and Ellis Genge, he has two titans of the England setup to emulate.

“They are both props and awesome players, so I’ve been looking at them and almost wanting to be them. It’s massively important because if I didn’t see them, I wouldn’t see an opening for me to go and do what I can do. I wouldn’t be able to see there was actually a spot in this career for me.

“It’s good to see a lot of black people in the game now. There are quite a few of us, it’s good the game is changing and adapting to different things. I reckon when I get older, hopefully, kids with my background are looking up to me and want to be like me, that would be an amazing feeling.”

Opoku-Fordjour’s blockbuster running game came to the fore during the World Rugby U20 Championship in Cape Town last July (Photo by World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Steve Borthwick’s scrum coach, Tom Harrison, visited Sale recently but according to Opoku-Fordjour, “we didn’t speak at all”. Though a call-up is not imminent, England know all about the prop’s tantalising skillset. Opoku-Fordjour dazzled for the under-20s during the summer and has a burning ambition to wear the rose at senior level.

There might soon be openings. Dan Cole was in harness at the World Cup but is now 36. Sinckler has not hit top form lately and a heavily rumoured move to France could suspend his Test career. Third-choice Will Stuart, Joe Heyes, the enormous Ehren Painter and Sale colleague Harper are all ahead of Opoku-Fordjour, who needs to layer more beef to his 111KG frame.

But the fact we are speaking about the tyro and Test rugby at all is no fait accompli. Opoku-Fordjour grew up in a boisterous Coventry home with three elder brothers and began life as a winger, before his physical capabilities forced an inevitable shift forward.

He walked me around the pitch one day and told me, if I want to make it, I’ve got to do more than I’m doing.

“My mum loves me the most so it was harder on the other boys,” he chuckles. “Nah, we used to playfight a lot, they said ‘yeah, let’s beat him up and make him strong’. They just wanted to get their anger out, I reckon. Cov is the best city in England. Back in the day it wasn’t the best but they have developed it, it’s getting better.”

He was jettisoned from the Worcester Warriors setup and when he moved to Wasps, academy lead Richard Beck soon hauled him aside. A double dose of reality was delivered right between the eyes.

“He walked me round the pitch one day and told me, if I want to make it, I’ve got to do more than I’m doing. He said ‘if you carry on doing what you are now, then you won’t make it’. He was making the decisions.

“I locked in to him and used him as much as I could to get to where I am. He wanted to see me doing extra work, scrum stuff, neck work, body positioning. He wanted me to show him I cared.”

Wasps’ financial disintegration catapulted Opoku-Fordjour into the wilderness again.
“At first I was a bit panicky but when I got back into the house, I was like, let’s calm down, what’s the next move? I got speaking to an agent and he found me the right club, the best club.

“Sale is the best. Everyone was so welcoming, just being normal guys. I’ve heard at some clubs the big dogs can be uptight and stuff but everyone is so nice and helpful. You’re gonna need help as a younger boy, you are going to need to learn, and everyone is willing to help you grow to reach the team’s goal.”

Opoku-Fordjour is currently in Cape Town preparing for Sale’s Investec Champions Cup clash with the Stormers (Photo by Sale Sharks)

And Sanderson is willing to back him, through the chicanes and obstacles to come.

“A lot of clubs have players of his calibre that just don’t get the opportunity,” the DoR said. “There is a perception, particularly around the front row, you can’t scrum as well as an experienced player because they haven’t got their head shoved up their a**e enough times.

“He has been thrust on to the big stage and has taken the bull by the horns.”

Opoku-Fordjour flew to Cape Town this week. He will be in Sanderson’s matchday squad again on Saturday, when the Sharks face the Stormers in a seismic Investec Champions Cup match. Another milestone, another step towards the summit of his vast ambition.

“You want to start for your club, you want to play for England, you want to play for the Lions,” he says. “You want to do it all. I want to do it all.”

Comments

2 Comments
J
JD Kiwi 153 days ago

I just hope that his workload gets well managed for the next few years, unlike Curry and Itoje when they were young.

C
Clive 154 days ago

Gunge and Sinkhole, “titans of the game”?

Fnarr.

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