Rising Saracens star Joel Kpoku has boldly laid out his manifesto for usurping Maro Itoje and forcing his way into England’s reckoning for the 2023 World Cup.
Prior to the coronavirus crisis halting the season in its tracks, Kpoku, 20, had exceeded his own expectations by becoming a regular Premiership starter, helping soon-to-be-relegated Saracens achieve notable victories over Sale, North-ampton and Leicester.
Having already attracted interest from Red Rose boss Eddie Jones by being called up to an England training camp in August 2018, Kpoku is firmly on the Test radar – but he has to press his case from a season in the Championship, to which he is now committed.
Kpoku, whose twin brother Jon also has high ambitions with Saracens after spending a successful season on loan at Ampthill, told The Rugby Paper: “I was devastated when the season stopped because I’d taken my first team opportunity with both hands.
“To get the exposure I’ve had was quite a shock because I never expected to be in that position, but hopefully I can continue it now and step up even more in the Championship next season to help bring us back up and then move my career on from there.
“My aim is to be at the 2023 World Cup. Next season’s going to be hard with us being in the Championship but I’ve been on the fringes of the England squad before and next season’s going to give me a chance to show what I can do week-in, week-out.
“Then, if we do come back up, I aim to keep my shirt in the Premiership and show Eddie Jones what I can do. I had a taste of an England camp in August 2018 so I know what it takes to get there and now it’s about being determined in my goals and going for it.”
Standing 6ft 5ins (1.96m) and weighing in at just under 20st (128kgs), Kpoku is an enforcer of rare quality who is soaking up everything he can from England regulars Itoje and George Kruis.
However, while younger players can sometimes be overawed by the presence of multi-capped team-mates, Kpoku says: “You can’t afford to be intimidated by guys like that and you have to be confident in your own ability so that when you get told by the coaches that you’re playing, you know it’s because they trust you to perform at the top level.
“It was quite a surprise to be playing at first but when Mark McCall tells you you’re in the team, you’ve got to put the excitement and emotion to one side and focus on the task ahead, analysing lineouts, getting them right and knowing your roles in open field.
“Maro, below, and ‘Kruiso’ have been really good to me and the calibre of these players is unbelievable when you look what they’ve achieved, so to have them alongside me is a real honour because I can speak to them whenever I need advice.
“Maro’s a massive guy to look up to – we’re both proud of our African heritage and are similar bullying types on the field – and to be able to learn from someone like him is unbelievable, but I also want to surpass him and take over from what he’s done.
“I want to create my own legacy in the game and, despite our relegation, the determination is to come back up and I’m fully committed to being a part of that.”
Sharing Kpoku’s lofty ambition is his brother, fellow lock forward Jon, who currently lacks the same experience but has enjoyed a productive year at Ampthill.
Both joined Saracens at U15s level after initially starting out in Rugby League for the London Skolars and it is highly likely they will be paired together in next season’s Championship, having already played alongside each other for Saracens in the Premiership Cup.
Jon told TRP: “I’m so proud of what Joel’s done this year and what he’s achieved hasn’t happened by chance, it started when we were together in college. The goal is to play Premiership rugby together and if we can get back playing again it could even happen this season, which would be a brilliant experience ahead of next season.
“I’m really determined to give him a run for his money next season as well because I’ve already played in the Championship for Ampthill now and I’ve got a bit more experience of it. Being in the Championship is not like being in the Premiership where everything is text book and technical, it’s more about being the hardest team on the field.
“That’s how Ampthill have done so well, by being the toughest team, and that’s what we’ve prided ourselves on. I want to have a good future at Saracens now and be a Jackson Wray type who is there for the rest of my career, so next season will provide a massive opportunity for me to establish myself. If I can do it alongside Joel, then brilliant.”
Joel, who had been linked with a move to Northampton, would love nothing more. He added: “When I said I was staying, Jon said, ‘Oh, no!’. But he’s keen to work hard and get some exposure himself. He’s been playing really well for Ampthill so hopefully we can power-up now for Saracens and play together.”