Ahead of hosting his former club, Saracens, in Lyon over the weekend, Joel Kpoku says that he does not speak to any of his former teammates since his move to France.
Joining the Top 14 club in November last year, the 23-year-old has settled into life across the Channel. With his former employers coming to town for the second round of the new Heineken Champions Cup season, the lock certainly isn’t lacking for motivation.
An academy product at the StoneX Stadium, Kpoku was well thought of as a teenager and even took part at England training camps. But despite promise, he was unable to establish himself as a first team regular under Mark McCall and ultimately leading to his decision to leave.
“Mate, I am excited,” Kpoku said when asked about coming face to face with Saracens. “Words can’t describe the excitement and the fire in my belly to come up against these guys. It is one I am looking forward to.”
His time in the Top 14 has been productive. Contributing to the club’s ninth-place finish last season and winning the Challenge Cup in Marseille, his start to this season has been affected by injury.
Surrounded by France internationals at the Stade de Gerland and welcoming plenty of former teammates will give his former club a chance to see what they are missing out on, although he doesn’t keep in touch with anyone at the club currently.
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“No to be quite honest, I don’t speak to anyone at the club,” Kpoku said.
Was that a conscious decision?
“Nah it’s nothing like that, it’s just they didn’t make the effort to contact me, so I didn’t see the point in me doing the same,” he explained. “I’m comfortable with where I am, I have got the right people around me now, so I don’t lose sleep over it.”
In the last decade or so, it is hard to fine examples of people with negative things to say about Saracens. They have dominated domestic and continental tournaments, with those that leave the team having only positive things to say.
There is a strong culture at the club, Kpoku unwilling to expand on whether or not his former teammates lack of desire to pick up the phone or send a message is indicative of the environment in Hendon.
“I don’t want to say the wrong thing here, but I am going to be as honest as I can,” Kpoku said. “As an insider there, you think it is a very inclusive club and whatnot. Not to bad-name them, but as an outsider that speaks volumes doesn’t it, in terms of the lads not even looking out for me.
“I could say I did the dame, but not even a ‘howzit?’, but culturally being in it is great, being outside it – I learned a few lessons, shall we say, at the club. I am not going to speak any further on that.”
In moving to France, Kpoku was following in the footsteps of Zach Mercer in taking a leap at a young age. Developing his rugby through playing an extremely high standard of rugby regularly, and getting well-paid in the process, the 23-year-old has seen similar success.
“It helped me massively,” Kpoku said. “I moved across all alone and had to fend for myself. I didn’t have any family or players I trusted at the time. Obviously I trust the players now and the backroom staff, but I really had to mature fairly quickly.
“Game time was obviously really important for me. I didn’t have that at Saracens, so it helped me massively in terms of my development and getting me up to speed to the level I need to get to. The coach has full belief in me as he’s given me the amount he has until today.”
Quite where he ranks on the England radar is uncertain - especially with a new head coach needing to be installed - is uncertain, but Kpoku certainly has been producing. A French speaker thanks to his Congolese parents, it was an almost seamless transition which ultimately led to European silverware and the first time that the 23-year-old was freed up entirely to play the way he wanted to.
“For me, I’m just free to play my own game,” Kpoku said. “At my previous club, I was always compared to Maro [Itoje]. I was always told ‘look at what he does, look at that’. At this club, the coach that got me in [Pierre Mignoni] said ‘just be yourself. I wouldn’t have got you here if I didn’t think you were good enough to play your own game’.
“That’s what I have done and it has worked out in my favour. I am able to play how I play. I’ve added being a lineout caller, which is new to me and in French. It’s not one where they have rushed me into doing it. I said I wanted to do it. I want to improve my game, take that step forward and doing it in a different language. It’s helped bug time. Long may it continue going forward.”
Unable to take part in the Champions Cup’s opening weekend of the new season, Kpoku watched on as his teammates lost 42-36 at the hands of the Bulls in Pretoria.
Picking up two bonus points was the biggest positive for Xavier Garbosa’s side, who can very much keep themselves in the race for the round of 16 with a positive result on Saturday afternoon in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes.