INTERVIEW: Joel Kpoku is thriving in France after leaving Saracens for Lyon… despite the move ruling the powerful lock out of England contention, he has no regrets as he prepares to face his former side on Saturday
- In November 2021 Joel Kpoku left Saracens and upped sticks to French side Lyon
- By his own admission, the powerful lock no longer felt at home in north London
- Kpoku, 23, wanted to become his own man and has now done just that in France
- He won the Challenge Cup last season and is thriving in the tough TOP14 league
- Kpoku’s team host his former side Sarries in a Champions Cup game on Saturday
This time last year, Joel Kpoku quit Saracens and upped sticks to Lyon. By his own admission, Kpoku no longer felt at home in north London. He’d had enough of being told to follow in the footsteps of Saracens, England and Lions star Maro Itoje.
Kpoku, still only 23, wanted to become his own man. He has done just that in France, winning the Challenge Cup last season and thriving in the TOP14 – one of the world’s toughest leagues.
On Saturday, Kpoku’s past and present will collide. Lyon host Saracens in the Champions Cup.
In November 2021, this time last year, Joel Kpoku left Saracens and upped sticks to Lyon
Kpoku, just 23, wanted to become his own man and has certainly done just that, winning the Challenge Cup last season and thriving in the TOP14 – one of the world’s toughest leagues
‘At my previous club, I was always compared to Maro,’ Kpoku said. ‘At this club, the coach said: ‘Just be yourself. Play your own game’.
‘That’s what I’ve done and it has worked in my favour. I am able to play how I play. I’ve added being a line-out caller which is new to me and in French. I want to improve my game and I’m doing it in a different language. It’s helped big time. Long may it continue going forward.’
Kpoku came through the Saracens system, but his shock departure caused big ripples at the Gallagher Premiership outfit.
‘I don’t speak to anyone at the club,’ he said. ‘They didn’t make the effort to contact me, so I didn’t see the point doing the same. I’m comfortable with where I am, so I don’t lose sleep over it.
‘I don’t want to say the wrong thing but I am going to be as honest as I can. As an insider there (Saracens) you think it is a very inclusive club. Not to bad name them but as an outsider that speaks volumes in terms of the lads not even looking out for me. I learned a few lessons.’
Kpoku, a powerful lock, made 46 appearances for Saracens but never fully established himself in Mark McCall’s side as he would have liked.
The powerful lock was frustrated at constant comparisons to England and Lions star Maro Itoje
Kpoku also admitted he no longer felt at home in north London and hinted it is not a very inclusive club – revealing he is not in contact with any player at the Premiership outfit (above)
Born to Congolese parents who moved to London to study, Kpoku followed suit in spreading his wings and opted for pastures new in France. It was a brave move, but one which has paid off handsomely.
Kpoku is contracted to Lyon for this season and next which means he is currently unavailable to play international rugby for England.
‘I actually didn’t want to go to France. Getting there was tough. Being alone and not knowing anyone in a completely new environment and city was very hard,’ Kpoku said.
‘When you’re in that time it’s like ‘Jesus how am I going to get out of this? I want to go back home.’ I was always finding ways to come back at every opportunity.
‘Then I realised if I wanted to settle, I had to go through it rather than trying to get out of it the whole time. I finally did that and came out the other end.
‘I think you’ll get a load more English players moving across to France. I can say first hand I’d like the rule of the overseas players to be abolished. I’m abroad and experiencing all these different cultures.
The second row’s move means he is not in England contention, but Kpoku has no regrets at all
And the 6ft 6ins forward said ‘it would take an awful lot’ to return to England again in future
‘You can say the salary is a lot better but it’s also a different brand of rugby. I hope one day that rule will be abolished. I’d love to play for England but I can’t at the moment.’
Only those who play their club rugby in England can represent the national side under the RFU’s strict selection policy.
But more and more English players are looking at France as a destination, especially after the demise of Wasps and Worcester and the Premiership’s financial crisis.
Asked what France are doing well and England are not, Kpoku replied: ‘It’s a pretty obvious one isn’t it? The cash. I am not going to sit here and lie to you.’
He concluded: ‘If any young player is wanting to leave England, do it. Honestly, it would probably be the best thing for you because you could always come back.
‘It’s not only the money side of things. It would take an awful lot (to return to England).’