Topsy Ojo

Two Tests, two tries, against the All Blacks. Without even mentioning the 73 scores for London Irish, Topsy Ojo already has enough for a thousand after-dinner speeches. Alternatively, he could just hand the floor to Eden Ojo, now there’s a talker.

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Eden Ojo isn’t going to miss out on this interview. First, she pulls herself up onto the chair next to us to sit opposite her dad, as if ready to begin the questioning herself. Then, as the talking begins, she decides instead to jump down and move her chair next to dad. Finally, she realises that’s not close enough and abandons her chair altogether to sit on dad’s lap. For a two-year-old, she’s not shy and, in that sense, she’s the complete opposite of her dad. At least from the outsiders’ point of view. Because, while we all know Topsy Ojo, we don’t know much about him. Depending on your allegiance, we’ve all either enjoyed or endured him ripping apart defences in London Irish colours for what seems like an age, but statistics and, almost literally, one headline aside, we know nothing.

Eden is giving us a good talking point. Wife of five years Jenny and four-year-old son Noah have popped to the shops, so Topsy is in charge. Only in the technical sense, the wild-haired, chubby-cheeked, 2ft-high Ojo is really running the show. While helping her with all-important Paw Patrol business, Topsy recounts his introduction to parenthood. “Well, Noah was eight weeks premature so it was a shock anyway for him to come earlier than expected,” he admits. “We didn’t do any NCT classes or anything like that, it was ‘right, he’s here let’s do this’, we had to adjust really quick. He had to stay in hospital for three weeks just to get checked over and I think we were just past the safe zone, which was good.

“At the time it was a bit of a nightmare because you just want to come home with a healthy baby, but looking back now it kind of gave us some time to adjust because at the hospital they actually got him into a kind of routine with set bedtimes. You wouldn’t notice it now though because he’s full of life, he’s got more energy than me.”

Eden agrees, at least the nodding seems to indicate the affirmative. Or it could be the work of Paw Patrol, they are very good pups. 

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Topsy’s own childhood was a good one too, growing up in Sidcup, Kent, with two brothers, one older, Babs – who now works in oil and gas – and Tobi, who now works in marketing and, incidentally, is living in New York. His parents, Bola and Akin, a lawyer and surgeon respectively, have their origins in Nigeria, hence his full name: Temitope Oluwadamilola Ojo. “My dad was born there but my mum was born here,” he says. “Although they probably spent most of their time growing up in Nigeria. They both went to university in Lagos. When dad qualified – as a surgeon, a job he stills does at King George Hospital in Essex – he started to come over here for work and that’s where the link to the UK began. 

“We did move home [to Nigeria] when I was seven or eight for a couple of years, so I have spent some time there. It’s always busy, especially Lagos – busy city, hustle bustle – even now, every time we go back, you kind of need another holiday. They’re trying to develop Lagos, but on one side you have these hotels that make it like Dubai, then you have poverty and really overcrowded streets, it’s both sides of the coin. Politics is always the worst enemy for Nigeria, look at the football team. It represents well and then something happens. I think if you ask most people about Nigeria they’ll say it’s got promise, but it needs a lot of help, it can be its own worst enemy. We’ve still got loads of family there though.”

Topsy’s Nigerian roots mean a lot, especially the roots that lead to a bowl of food. “It’s all about the kitchen,” he says. “I’d say African families in general are close-knit, houses are always full, with loads of people in the living room and loads of people in the kitchen chatting and cooking. The food is always good, especially the jollof rice.”

Eden cuts in. Her own conversation has been running concurrently to ours, but input is now definitely required from us. “You like jollof rice don’t you,” Topsy asks Eden, who resolutely refuses to respond and chooses instead to focus intensely on her colouring-in. “You do, you like everything. She’s good with food, Noah’s the fussy one.”

The importance of religion is also a by-product of a Nigerian upbringing, “Yeah it’s always been a big part of it too,” he says. “It is now as well, mostly because of my mum but we still go to church on a Sunday.”

Like many young lads with speed to burn in Kent, football came first. Attending Dartford Grammar School, the routine would be school rugby on Saturdays, football on Sundays – a familiar pattern for many. A run to the semi-final of the Daily Mail Schools Cup not only brought his school to people’s attention, but also Topsy. By the time he was in his final year, he was playing for England U19s. “I got accepted to do law at university in London,” he explains. “It wasn’t until I was about 17 that I’d even seen rugby as a potential career to be honest, but it kind of got to that decision time as I had an offer from Irish. I discussed it with my parents and got the green light for a gap year to see how it went.”

And it went. As does Eden. Again choosing to switch table sides. “What are you up to? Moving your chair?” asks Topsy. Eden hands the red crayon to me for safekeeping, clambers onto the chair and allows us to carry on. “She is very strong-willed,” says Topsy. “I think the fact that she has an older brother has helped to accelerate things as well. He basically bullied her and I think she figured ‘right, okay, I have to master walking so I can hold my own here’.  She runs the show. She can be very easy going like me, but then she can also be very strong willed, like her mother.

“At London Irish there are a few of us with kids the same age,” continues Topsy.  “David Paice is probably the closest to me and he’s got two girls who are the same age as mine, birthdays barely a month apart. There’s George Skivington and I think his youngest is a week apart from Noah. It’s good, it helps us because we all kind of go through the same thing together. It’s the same with the ex-players that have left Irish but have kids similar ages as well.”

When Topsy broke through at London Irish as a 19-year-old in 2005, scoring a try from the bench in the Anglo-Welsh Cup, it marked the early days of a golden generation that take them to heights they’ve never quite reached since. “I think my first touch was the try,” he continues. “I had to chase a kick and dot it down, I was only about five metres out, but it gave me a big confidence boost. Delon [Armitage] was actually the one who kicked that ball, about 40-metres out it was. 

“He’s got a beard now,” he adds, referring to Delon, still a close friend today. “He has dyed his hair too I think –  he’s trying to tell everyone he’s still a young man!”

A try-scoring debut wasn’t enough to secure him a spot the following week though. “I do remember being very angry at the time but obviously not knowing how to express it,” he says. “Delon definitely would have been different, I know that, but he’s always been that way. He’s right in that you always have to challenge coaches because otherwise you end up going through everything in your mind, rather than just being direct and asking, ‘why haven’t I been picked? You can drive yourself crazy thinking about things.”

His relationship with coaches has generally been good, he reckons, although he’s had his run-ins, not least with Paul Hull and Brian Smith. “They confronted me in training, called me in for meetings saying, ‘you’re not working hard enough’ or, ‘you’ve made a mistake here, you’ve done this wrong’. 

“At one point I was arguing back to Brian Smith quite strongly saying, ‘you’re wrong, you don’t know what you’re talking about’. Typically, the next game I was the man of the match, scored two tries, and he singled me out in the meeting the next week for a job well done. 

“I remember through gritted teeth, being a bit like, ‘you’re trying to take credit for this aren’t you?’. But I really got on well with Brian even if I do look back now and think, ‘did he know what he was doing all along or would I have done that anyway?’. I still don’t know. 

“I think anybody who knows me would know that I’m not the complacent guy. My laidback attitude doesn’t translate into me being sloppy, or not working hard. I would almost say the opposite.”

Do you think you ever are too laid back? (there’s laughter in the background – Penny has returned with Noah and overhears our line of questioning). “Some would definitely say yes, and, sometimes, yes, probably I am,” admits Topsy. “But there’s been times where someone has needed a firm hand and I can definitely be that firm hand. That’s probably something I’ve had to learn though, and I’m still learning too.”

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The side Topsy Ojo grew up with at London Irish was, in his words, ‘brilliant’. “Multi-talented, multi-cultural,” he adds. “That team I was in from 2006 to 2010/11 was the best I ever played with. It was probably when our islander affect started to come into the team so we had a good balance. We had guys coming in from the academy, who had been together for a while, then we started to sign some really high-quality players. Mapusua Seilala, Elvis Seveali’i, Sailosi Tagicakibau, George Stowers, Mike Catt, Ricky Flutey – these sort of guys and then you supplement that with myself, Dylan, Paul Hodgson, David [Paice], Nick [Kennedy], Bob [Casey], Declan [Danaher]. We had a good blend of home-grown Irish players with international quality on top.”

Perhaps brutally, certainly unfairly, given the talent within, they were the greatest nearly-men in Premiership history, losing the Challenge Cup final, a Heineken Cup semi-final, a Premiership final. Continually challenging but never quite finishing the job. “It was all within touching distance,” admits Topsy. “The frustrating one for me was when I was injured and missed the final of the Premiership in 2009. I had to watch from the sidelines and I think we were just two points away from lifting the grand prize [they lost 10-9 to Leicester]. And then there was the European semi-final…  [when they lost to Toulouse]

“Were we good enough? Yeah, absolutely, but those games come down to small margins, it just didn’t go our way. I think it was moments, you know, in the Premiership final we missed a few kicks and then in the European semi we lost to a European giant, but we were right there and maybe just missed that bit of experience.”

The near-misses compounded the disappointment for fans who slowly saw the side going its separate ways. “Delon went, Steffon [Armitage] went, Bob was on the verge of retiring, Nick, Paul, Declan were moving on or retiring. You understood their reasons. Delon had an unbelievable offer from Toulon and he’d have been a fool to turn it down. 

“I remember thinking that it [form] would turn, but I guess I just didn’t see that there wasn’t that great contingency plan and that we weren’t able to compete and maintain what had served us so well previously.”

The original squad may have been decimated but the young players gave him enough hope to stay put. “There was half a contingency with the talent we had coming through the academy,” he says. “I mean they’re all internationals now, and a couple of Lions too. Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Alex Corbisiero, Kieran Low. But I think what they were just coming into what I think was just the start of a decline. I think we lost a lot of players in a short amount of time and ultimately that cost us.”

Given his talent, Topsy should have won far more than two caps. A try-scoring debut for the England Saxons against the USA in 2007 was followed by a call-up but no caps to the England squad later that year. In 2008, though, he got the break, called up to Martin Johnson’s first England squad for the tour to New Zealand. Two tries on his debut against the All Blacks should’ve been a dream, even if the end result was a defeat. This was the All Blacks and two tries scored by a team, let alone an individual, is no mean feat. Even the manner in which he took them involved outdoing two global legends: he intercepted a Dan Carter pass and then beat Mils Muliaina in a foot race. It ended up being overshadowed by an off the field incident, involving Topsy and some of his team-mates on a night-out that went wrong. Cleared of wrongdoing, it remains the only ‘bad headline’, he’s ever had. Lessons learned in the hardest of ways. He’d never play for England again. The two shouldn’t be linked, but even Topsy doesn’t know if they are. “Looking back at the things that went wrong,” he begins, “I mean it’s a big lesson, of course you wish all that stuff wouldn’t have happened and did that affect things afterwards, who’s to say? It might have had a slight effect but I think ultimately my form should have spoken for me. Anybody who knows me and my character knows what kind of person I am. But, yeah, a lesson for me definitely. 

“As a professional, you just always have to be careful. You see it now, talking about Liverpool and Jamie Carragher and things like that. The cricketers as well, you just always have to be on your toes in those kinds of situations. You hope for both of them that they come back and they’re allowed to carry on, but you just never know. If Jamie Carragher got sacked there would be the debate, but he’s the personality so it’s up to him to behave better in that situation and be aware of potential consequences.

“At the time, I was very well supported, but you’d never wish that sort of publicity and negativity around anyone. My parents were disappointed that that sort of thing was associated with me because you know, they raised me, they know me. My friends know me, so they knew there wasn’t any story there but the fact that the association with me came out in papers, that was the disappointing thing.”

An injury the following season ruled him out of a summer tour he was sure to be selected on, denied him a chance to prove his obvious international-class qualities. “By the time I got back people like Chris Ashton had jumped ahead of me in the queue and it’s a tough road back. I would have obviously loved more opportunities with England – a home international would have been great, a Six Nations game would have been unbelievable. But I’m thankful for scoring two tries on debut against the All Blacks with the world cup-winning team they had. That was the team that went on to win it – that’s something I’ll always have.”

Eden has left the table. Instead, with a squished strawberry in her pudgy paw, she’s posing questions to our photographer. He doesn’t have the answers. Noah, meanwhile, is intent on stealing the limelight. Calling him a ‘bundle of energy’ doesn’t do him justice, he’s throwing himself around the garden, making tackles, chucking passes and kicking goals (over a mini set of 4ft-high posts) like he’s taking on the All Blacks single-handedly. The way he kicks the ball suggests that could even happen. Noah Ojo. Remember the name.

At 32, Topsy and his mate David Paice are the senior heads at London Irish and, such has been his longevity in the game, it’s fair to say some are surprised that he’s still playing at all, let alone playing at the same club. “Some do say, ‘are you still there, you should have left ages ago’ or, ‘are you still playing? How old are you now?’. But then others think I can still go for another three or four years, so you get a bit of both. 

“I mean, in one sense, still being at London Irish is really nice and people like that because not many guys stay at a club for that length of time anymore. The game is a business now, it’s professional and guys are trying to maximise what they can, ’cause it’s out there. So it’s nice to hear that side of it as well.”

Did he ever think of leaving? “I had offers, a couple in France in particular were tempting,” he admits. “But at the time I was happy, settled, there was a good offer here as well so it was an easy decision to stay. I had just met Jenny as well so maybe that was another factor. I mean we had no kids, no dependents, so moving wouldn’t have been an issue. 

“I don’t regret not moving though,” he insists. “At the time it was the right decision for me.”

He gives level pegging to two of the worst moments of his career. Missing the Premiership final and being injured for the Premiership run-in when the club was relegated. “Looking back on that time, it probably had been coming,” he admits. “We were slipping down and went from top four of the table to tenth, then eleventh, then relegated.” 

“Daddy, what are you doing?” Noah, after his brief drill session in the garden, has joined the table. “I’m doing an interview.” “Is daddy a good rugby player, Noah?” asks Jenny, handing out a strawberry. He nods. 

Daddy doesn’t have great memories of the Championships, however. “The earliest one was Bedford and I can remember that was basically playing on a hill,” he says. “It just kind of angled from one corner to the other. Cornish Pirates away was wet, damp and we were pretty much in a portakabin, right behind one of the stands, with supporters just walking passed the changing room.

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“I had to get my head around it and, you know, I’ve played Premiership rugby all my life, so this was a bit of a change in mindset. This was something we spoke about, we said, ‘this is what we are in now, and let’s just embrace it, let’s just enjoy it’,” he says, without giving any indication of feeling the latter emotion at any time during his season in the second tier.

Relegation is happening and Topsy’s contract is up at the end of the year. Right now, next season could mean anything. London Irish want him to stay. He’s toying with coaching – helping the backs at Guildford. There seem to be offers from elsewhere. Even retirement. Could he leave London Irish? “I guess I have to at some point,” he admits. “Finishing my career at Irish would be brilliant, ideally that would be finishing in the Premiership. The other side is moving to take an opportunity that was going to sustain the next ten to 20 years. So, be it coaching, be it media, I don’t know, a last opportunity to experience something different. 

“From a rugby point of view, I have loads left to give,” he continues, covering all bases. “Like I said, I’m still fit, healthy, and still absolutely loving being out there.”

He seems to be almost juggling the offers on the table in his head as we speak. By the time, you read this, he’ll have chosen one of them, but at least you know, he considered them all. He’s able to look back too. “The last couple of years has been very tough and if there was anything I could change it would have been that continuity, that succession plan we talked about in 2010 – 2011. I mean we talk about what-ifs, but looking at where those guys are now, what if all those guys were in an Irish shirt now? Potentially where could we be?”

We’re now sat in the chairs in the Ojo garden, watching Noah fizz in every direction like a wayward firework with Eden trailing in his wake. Dad, meanwhile, has stopped dwelling on what ifs. “I can’t take away from years 2005 to that point though, when things were unbelievable,” he says. “We went from low end of the league, fought our way up, fighting for silverware, within touching distance of the ultimate prize. I became an international, scored international tries. Two hundred and eighty appearances, captain of the club, picked up awards, so I think I’ve done okay. There’s always more you could have wished for, but I’ve done okay. Regret is not my thing.”

Words by: Alex Mead

Pictures by: Marc Hayden