Topsy Ojo: Ojo safely on fast track in a topsy-turvy world

The flying London Irish winger tells David Llewellyn about dreams for Nigerian rugby, and the reality of life with the Exiles and England
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The Independent Online

Topsy Ojo has a dream. Not unusual you might think for a 22-year-old who is making the right sort of impression on the rugby fields of Europe.

The London Irish wing, who was born in Tottenham, but supports Liverpool, is proving a potent member of the Exiles' back three which boasts another free-scoring player in Delon Armitage as well as the fearsome Fijian, Sailosi Tagicakibau.

Ojo and Armitage have an uncanny understanding on the field. "Delon and I have been playing together for the last six or seven years. We first played together for South East Division and over the last couple of seasons we have worked really well together.

"Delon would say that he is the fastest over 40 metres, but I don't really know how quick I am. I did athletics at school, 100 metres and 200 metres I think I was around 10.8 or 10.9 seconds for the 100m."

Ojo is certainly a fast riser. As a mark of how quickly he has come on in the rugby world since making his debut as a replacement in the Powergen Cup against Wasps two years ago, a match which he marked by scoring the first of 14 tries in all competitions that season, he was a late call-up as cover on England's summer tour of South Africa.

It would be perfectly understandable then if Ojo's dream was to win a string of caps for the country of his birth. But naturally he dwells in a topsy-turvy world. His parents, thoracic surgeon father Akin and mother Bola are from Nigeria, and Ojo would love to see that country make it into the Rugby World Cup.

"Nigerians are very athletically built," explained Ojo, "and if they were to start maybe through sevens and work up to 15-a-side, the way Kenya have done, then maybe they could do it. I think that is the route Nigeria should look at, and I would love to help them in some way."

Ojo started at the bottom too. He is a product of Dartford Grammar School in Kent, represented London schools and progressed to South East at Under-16 and Under-18 levels. As a naturally athletic and balanced runner, try-scoring came easily enough to the 6ft, 14 stone Ojo. It was while he was at Dartford that Ojo was scouted by London Irish.

Since then he has raced through the England Under-18s, Under-21s and the Saxons, as well as that ill-fated summer tour. And in all that time his work ethic and determination to succeed has not disappointed the Exiles forwards coach, Toby Booth. "If you look at 100m sprinters they are all strong in the gym. Topsy certainly displays those attitudes. He breaks a lot of tackles, which is an indication of his strength."

Ojo has also been working on his physical presence and has managed to add a bit more muscle to his frame over the summer. "I needed to put on a few extra pounds of muscle on my upper body, but at the same time maintain my speed and agility. I have built up the muscle but not so much that I have lost any speed.

"And the extra work has helped me, especially when it comes to breaking the first tackle. Those half yards you make in contact are the extra step you need in order to get the off-load away."

It is his explosive pace over the initial few metres which makes Ojo so dangerous. It often means he can break and go through the gears, but otherwise it gives him time and room to get the ball to someone else.

That is why Ojo is also polishing his off-loads, a vital part of his armoury with pacy partners such as Armitage and Tagicakibau ever ready to run off him.

"Off-loads are about two things," explained Booth, "the ability to dictate contact so that you are free enough to make the ball available – that requires strength and agility and Topsy has both. The other thing is having soft hands and touch, which is indicative of people who are good at passing the ball and he displays these attributes."

Ojo is not the finished article, he knows it, but he is now not far short of where he needs to be to compete for a place in the England set-up, and he is well aware that there are rivals galore in the Premiership just as hungry as he is. He has played with a lot of them at the England age group levels.

"There is a massive pool of young guys who are coming through," he said, "Mathew Tait, Tom Varndell, Ryan Lamb and Anthony Allen in the Under-19s, then in the Under-21s Toby Flood among others."

It is a daunting list packed with speed and power; some have already made it, but Ojo is patient. He will get there. But a professional rugby career can be brutally short and to that end Ojo has decided to use his A levels (an A and two Bs) to lay the foundation for a career outside the sport, studying law at Birkbeck College in London.

"It's hard work, but it is good to do and it takes your mind off rugby," he said. Not for too long though, not while an England opening beckons.