After experiencing National League Rugby with both Stourbridge and Sedgley Park in 2022-23, England U20s star Asher Opoku-Fordjour is now preparing for a World Rugby U20s semi-final. Photo Credit: (RFU Collection via Getty Images)
Article: Talking Rugby Union
It might be the toughest question of the whole interview.
Asher Opoku-Fordjour is chatting to Talking Rugby Union ahead of England’s World U20s Championship semi-final.
It is Wednesday afternoon over in South Africa – with their last four meeting with France still a few days away – but we rewind the clock to the beginning of the competition.
“This is a difficult question,” Opoku-Fordjour says, laughing. “Scrummaging is my job but I am going to have to go for the try.”
His answer is in relation to the 19-year-old’s performances in the tournament so far, particularly in England’s opener against Ireland. The powerful and explosive front-rower produced two eye-catching moments which filtered their way onto social media.
The first was an outstanding display of dynamism which saw Opoku-Fordjour score England’s first try of the championships while the second was a monster scrum which shunted Ireland back.
— National League Rugby (@Natleague_rugby) June 28, 2023
“That little burst of pace [for the try] is just back from the old days, bringing old memories back!” Opoku-Fordjour says with a chuckle.
The youngster is recalling his early days at Kenilworth RFC in Warwickshire. He began life on the wing but as he started to grow and ‘fill-out’, he transitioned into the front-row and is now one of the most promising props in the country.
“Seriously, the power in my carries and stuff like that, I think that is one of my biggest attributes alongside scrummaging but I am always looking to develop,” he adds.
In the two games he has featured in thus far, Opoku-Fordjour has been part of an extremely exciting front-row. Packing down alongside the likes of Nathan Jibulu (Harlequins) and Afolabi Fasogbon during clashes with Ireland and Australia, the trio (to highlight just those three names) have all shown their qualities on the big stage.
But while his individual displays have caught the attention, just being involved in the World U20s Championship is pleasing enough for Opoku-Fordjour considering the hectic and emotional start to the season he endured.
Back in October, Opoku-Fordjour was left without a club after Wasps entered administration. The thought of anyone losing their job through no fault of their own is hard to fathom but for an emerging talent like Opoku-Fordjour, he was left at an unthinkable crossroads.
But just under a month after he had received the devastating news, Opoku-Fordjour was on his way to Manchester (along with Wasps academy teammate Rekeiti Ma’asi White) to sign a long-term contract with Sale Sharks which will keep him at the club until the end of the 2024-25 season.
“After Wasps went down, I didn’t know where I was going to be but then I have found a club in Sale and I have settled in nicely,” Opoku-Fordjour says. “They’ve pushed me to [England] U20s and I couldn’t have asked for anything more of Sale.
“They’ve been wonderful with me since what happened with Wasps. They are helping me with my development so much so it is class. I wouldn’t expect to be here really but I am here and I am grateful for the opportunity that everyone has given me.”
As Opoku-Fordjour touches on, his move to Sale was followed by appearances for England in the U20s Six Nations and as we continue chatting, it quickly becomes apparent that he feels the North-West club is the perfect environment for his development.
— EK Rugby Analysis (@ek_rugby) June 24, 2023
“That was one of the main reasons I went to Sale,” he says. “The culture, there is loads of young lads pushing through. I feel like Alex [Sanderson] wants the academy to come through. I think that is one of his goals and targets and he drives that which is good.”
When you consider that Opoku-Fordjour began the 2022-23 season on loan at National Two West side Stourbridge and now finds himself preparing for a semi-final with England, how he has fared and met his challenges head-on has to be admired.
Even his experiences with Stourbridge and later with National Two North champions Sedgley Park haven’t suddenly become secondary thoughts just because of the position he now finds himself in.
“The games I played with Sedgley Park, for example, they are such a good group of lads. They helped me loads. I was close with the coach as I knew Scott [Barrow] from Wasps so we had a good relationship. I enjoyed it there and learnt a lot. It was good fun.”
Opoku-Fordjour admits he didn’t play too many times for Sedgley Park but he did represent the side in their title-winning victory against Sheffield Tigers back in April, and now he would love the chance to taste success again on the World U20s stage.
The 19-year-old goes on to reference Kobe Bryant as one of his inspirations not just because of how successful the legendary basketball player became, but because of his ‘continuous hard work to be the best’ and it is a mentality which Opoku-Fordjour has brought into these championships.
“It [the World U20s] is really good because you get to see the other boys around you and the competition around you. You can really see how much you need to develop if you want to be one of the best and if you want to be that star player in your position, you have to work harder than every single one of those players.
“It puts into perspective how much you need to work hard and how much you need to learn to push on in the future.”
While Opoku-Fordjour is hoping he has beaten off the competition to earn a start at loosehead prop against top-seeds France on Sunday, he feels the healthy rivalry within the England team has brought the squad closer together.
He credits the progress England have made over in South Africa to that togetherness. They entered the tournament off the back of a defeat against Georgia but new head coach Mark Mapletoft saw his side go unbeaten in the pool stages [draws with Ireland and second seeds Australia + a win over Fiji] and that record was enough for them to qualify for the semi-finals as the best runner-up.
If England do make it to the final – where they could face hosts South Africa or Six Nations Grand Slam winners Ireland – they would have done it the hard way but the magnitude of the occasion isn’t getting to Opoku-Fordjour.
?????????? ???????????????????? from a nailbiter in Cape Town??#WorldRugbyU20s
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) July 5, 2023
“Going into any competition, your goal is always to be winning the competition” he adds. “We’ve all bought into what Tofty [Mark Mapletoft] has brought to us and what the coaching staff have brought to us and we have all run with it.
“We are a tight group of boys. Everyone has got a good relationship with each other so I think that really helps us going forward. When it comes to those moments in games where you have to make that tackle, you have to sprint back as hard as you can, we are going to do that for each other because we have that relationship.
“France [who topped Pool A] have been looking good but I think we as a team, our tightness and togetherness that we’ve shown against Ireland and Australia and what we can bring individually, I think we can do the job if we can stick together.”
If England are to reach next Friday’s final in Cape Town, it may well act as a reminder of how quickly things can change, especially in the case of Opoku-Fordjour.
The season started with the youngster wondering what direction his rugby journey would go in and now it could end by possibly representing England in a World Championship final. Whatever the outcome, the promising prop seems to be in a good place again and you feel there are plenty more highlights to come on social media of Opoku-Fordjour’s undeniable talent.