John Okafor Exclusive: Huge National League clash, Rotherham's resurgence and the 'uncomfortable truth' of racism in rugby

This Saturday's top of the table clash in National Two North holds great significance to John Okafor
©Gareth Siddons

"I'm only about 15 minutes away from their ground. I'm still living in the same part of Leeds and I drive down to Rotherham which is only like 45/50 minutes. I'm happy here but I'm worried that I am becoming an adopted Yorkshireman now!"

John Okafor laughs as we discuss the biggest game of the weekend in National Two North. For followers of levels three and four, Rotherham Titans' trip to Leeds Tykes needs no introduction and for the towering forward, it will be a case of him returning to somewhere he knows well.

Having spent five years involved with Leeds Beckett University and subsequently Leeds Tykes, Okafor will be wearing the colours of Rotherham at West Park Leeds RFC [The Sycamores] on Saturday as the top two collide in National Two North.

Will it be strange facing Leeds Tykes this weekend?

"Honestly, the short answer is no," Okafor says. "I have got a lot of friends from my time at Leeds and on a personal level, it is good to see them doing well but when I cross over that whitewash, it is game time, it is business. It is one of those games where it means a lot to a lot of people. It is one you really want to play in."

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Life in South Yorkshire has started well for the 25-year-old. Okafor joined Rotherham from Leeds in the summer - as he wanted to 'stretch himself in a different environment' - and his new club have won all 10 of their matches to date.

But his former side have also been in a relentless mood. After two rebrands of the club and a relegation from National One last year, the Tykes seem to be heading in the right direction once again.

Another new era - this time under the guidance of Pete Seabourne - couldn't have started much better with Leeds stitching together a run of 11 successive victories. It means they are currently top of the pile and they are also seven points clear of Rotherham, who have a game in hand.

In contrast, Leeds won on just four occasions last term in a campaign where Okafor made 19 appearances for the Tykes.

"They had a really tough year last year," Okafor reflects. "I was there and it was a really, really hard year for the club and to see them bounce back is great, especially to see my friends playing well.

"To be honest, I am not surprised that Leeds are playing well. I think when I was there, you could tell the pieces were there. It just didn't click for whatever reason. I know they have just had a reset and they have just gone back to what they know. The sort of calibre of players that are there, you knew it just needed to click and it has clicked this season."

Both Leeds Tykes and Rotherham have certainly set the tone this term, and they are the only teams across levels three and four who remain unbeaten.

With Leeds coming down from National One and the Titans being one of the leading sides in National Two North in recent times, you can't really label their progress this year as a revelation.

However, perhaps it could be described as a 'rebirth' considering both have experienced periods of decline after the heady days of the Premiership and the Championship.

This is Rotherham's fifth season in the National Leagues. After two years in National One, the club were relegated following the curtailed 2019-20 campaign and have since plied their trade in the fourth tier.

But having anchored themselves in National Two North, Okafor gives us an insight into Rotherham's attempts to try and climb the ladder again.

"I think Leeds and Rotherham, they were staples of Yorkshire rugby and northern rugby for the best part of two decades," says Okafor.

"Rotherham reached out to me, told me a bit about the project they were putting together and that they were going hell for leather to get the club up and out. The idea is they are going for back-to-back promotions so they wanted to put the best squad together in Yorkshire. They saw me as part of that plan. 

"Rotherham are a very ambitious club. That's clear. The fans are passionate. When I speak to the fans after the game, they talk about the years they were in the Champ and when they were in the Premiership and their European away days. A lot of those fans have been to places like Perpignan in the European Challenge Cup so they still want to live that. They are very, very committed and they want to get back to where they once were. I just want to help them climb the league."

Okafor has featured nine times for the Titans this season and despite a seamless start to the campaign, there was the potential for Rotherham's strong opening to hit a bump in the road.

After seven victories from seven, head coach Gary Pearce surprisingly exited the club. The Rotherham Advertiser reported that the reason for the parting of ways may have been down to Pearce's 'coaching methods' but the Titans acted swiftly by hiring former Huddersfield boss Gareth Lewis.

In addition to Lewis moving to Clifton Lane, ex-Jersey Reds director of rugby Harvey Biljon joined the club in a short-term consultancy role and the duo have continued the winning feeling around Rotherham.

"Obviously we have had some changes in recent weeks with requiring Harvey Biljon and Gareth Lewis and for us, they have taken the intensity that much higher," Okafor explains. "We are very, very fortunate to have the mind of Harvey at the club. He has come in and I think all the boys are learning so much from him. He has won the Championship [last season] and he has been at the top end of the game.

"I think your biggest concern is when you make that transition and you take on a new coach when you have been winning games, you're worried that you might have that difference in performance. For us, we have actually springboarded. They have set us the challenge to see if we can go through the rest of the year undefeated and go from there."

Having spoken to Okafor in the past, it seems like it takes a lot to faze him and being set the goal of reaching the Christmas period as part of an unbeaten side is something he will undoubtedly relish.

On an individual note, challenging himself is something he is used to. Okafor was once on the books at Harlequins, but at 19 years old, he suffered a knee injury which led to his contract not being renewed. He switched his attention to Leeds Beckett University but recently admitted on The WOD POD that after achieving his degree in Economics and Finance, a full-time rugby contract that he thought was on the table didn't materialise.

It is safe to say Okafor is happy to tell it how it is and last weekend on Twitter, he was one of many to express his feelings following Ugo Monye’s claims that he was racially abused in the aftermath of Exeter Chiefs’ Premiership fixture against Gloucester.

The former England international and TNT Sports presenter/pundit took to social media where he said he was subjected to "the most blatant racism I've seen from a supporter at a live game."

At the start of the week, Devon & Cornwall Police confirmed they were investigating the incident but these situations are becoming tiresome for Okafor.

"For me, I am a stakeholder in the game. I am a black person who plays the game," he says. "I think the first thing was his [Ugo's] reaction and everything he said afterwards, honestly, it is going to sound quite brutal, but I am not surprised.

"That is the uncomfortable truth. I am not surprised. I am not surprised no one spoke up for him. I am not surprised he was abused and as black players and ethnic minority players, we are all just kind of fed up as a collective. I have been in such an experience. You feel like you are the only person in the world. You feel very, very lonely.

"If it is not microaggression, it is racial abuse and this is someone that, if you're talking about Ugo Monye, he is an England and British and Irish Lions legend. He does so much for inclusivity in the game. He is front and centre of the conversation. He is such a prominent figure in the game so to hear someone like that claim he was abused, it is disgusting and abhorrent.

"The message is always rugby is a sport for all regardless of race, colour, background, gender, or sexuality but when push comes to shove and someone does report something, it is complete tumbleweed. No one wants to say anything. Everyone has got their hands in their pockets looking around; 'Who is going to say this? Who is going to speak out first?'

"I think the conversation needs to be; 'Why is this constantly coming up?"

Over the past month, a former Rugby Football Union council member was banned from attending matches for a year after making a racial slur at Twickenham while back in April, English rugby's governing body found that racism is experienced by players "in every elite area of rugby."

Okafor feels that the allegations made by Monye further highlight the need for rugby to make a change but more importantly, he believes the sport needs to acknowledge that it has an issue with racism.

"One thing that frustrates me a lot is that we have a narrative that we are better than football but when we want to start talking about the racial issues that are in the game, no one wants to have the conversation," Okafor adds. "At least football are more prepared to have this conversation. Rugby is still behind in terms of being prepared to acknowledge and have a frank conversation.

"If we are talking about how does the culture shift, I think the first point has to be acknowledging that yes, we do have a problem because once you acknowledge you have a problem, then you have the appetite to change.

"I think the sport has made tokenistic gestures at times but as a fundamental acknowledgement that we have a problem, I don't think there has ever been one.

"Yorkshire Cricket had to conduct a whole independent review because it came out that internally from top to bottom, there was a problem in that institution. They have had to do massive overhauls in terms of how they conduct what they do.

"Maybe we have to have a detailed, internal audit. Not just the elite game but grassroots, National Leagues, the Championship, it has to be done from top to bottom to see where the problems are and then you can start working on what we can do and how we can change things.

"Today is Ugo Monye and he's a prominent figure but what if it happened and it was just a fan who was in a queue buying a drink at a grassroots game? Would we have had the same level of outrage or just brushed it under the carpet? 

"In an awful way, given the high profile of Ugo, hopefully the people at the top see this as a deer in the highlights moment and they can see that we have to change something here because something is not right."