Topsy Ojo: Coffee, Caps and Chat
Words and Images: Harry Johnson
Hippo caught up with former London Irish flyer Topsy Ojo to discuss what happens when the final whistle blows for the last time
Topsy, what have you been doing since retiring from professional rugby?
I knew I always wanted to coach, so I got in touch with St John’s School in Leatherhead, coaching rugby, rugby 7s as well as football, cricket and athletics; whatever I can get my hands on. It was an experience which I have not had before and I have really enjoyed it. Although COVID has disrupted things, I am defiantly looking forward to kicking on there.
Away from that I do a lot of media work, commentary and punditry for TV and Radio. It was something I always knew I enjoyed, and about 2 years out from retirement I started to build a path to get involved with it seriously. With the exception of a couple of months, there have not been many free weekends since I have been involved with it. I have loved every minute, I have been able to travel, report, do pitch side interviews, I have really enjoyed it all.
You touched on it then, when did you first start thinking about life after rugby?
With coaching, it was mid-way towards the back end of my career. I went ahead and got my badges as I knew it was something I wanted to do. The media stuff was probably two years prior to retiring. I had a hamstring injury and knew I was out of contract that season. Obviously I wanted to play on, which I did, but I thought you never know, so on crutches I hobbled into town and met with BT Sport, TalkSport and others. Within three weeks I was doing my first game for BT and have been ticking away ever since. You always say start planning as early as you can, I am glad now that I put a lot into it when I did, as I feel like I am reaping the rewards.
What would you say is the biggest challenge you have faced since you retired?
Just the uncertainty really. I am still doing things that I love; I am involved with Irish as an ambassador, so I do some off-pitch work with them. COVID showed how because a lot of my work is freelance or self-employed, that you are reliant on people giving you opportunities. So it was that uncertainty really; I have a young family with kids at home that I want to be able to provide for, so if there is anything that puts that at risk then it’s a concern. Fortunately, even with COVID things have worked out well.
What skills did you learn from rugby that you still use in your life post rugby?
Rugby has taught me so much, the big ones for me are resilience, and being able to work well in a team and adapt. Even with the TV work now there are 50 - 100 people, directors, producers, floor mangers, who all have to do their jobs to make sure that I can do mine as one of maybe four people in front of the camera. If something goes wrong then the whole thing can, you need to be able to roll with it… that is what makes live TV live!
You have recently launched your own mentoring business 301 Mentoring.
What is that about and who do you work with?
Yes, so that is a bit of a passion project of mine. For me there are too many stories of players aged 16 - 24 who just fall out of love with the game, and you think why? We talk about growing the game, increasing numbers and participation, yet a lot of kids do fall through the cracks. The reasons they give, I think are reasons that can be addressed earlier in their careers. Every young player I am sure would love to sign an academy contract before breaking into the first team, but there are only so many people who can do that. That doesn’t stop players progressing or making it in different ways, some just need different types of support that isn’t just technical and tactical; they need off field support, mentoring, life lessons and skills, including mental health and mental fitness. As much as I appreciate the technical side of the game I believe that the mentoring side of the game is hugely important.
That is where is 301 came about and I felt I could give support to those who need it with their lives off the pitch, given my insight into life as professional sportsman. This won’t stop the pitfalls arising, but when they do, people are better equipped to deal with them, rather than choosing to not play rugby anymore. We have all benefited from playing rugby, I have massively, and I want to ensure people continue to do so.
You mentioned COVID earlier, how did you find that period for yourself and your family?
Interesting! Difficult and OK bits. We were all healthy and never had any issues on that front. My wife is a self-employed makeup artist, so that was probably the most worrying bit. We were home for pretty much the whole summer, and as much as I had just retired, you now have nothing coming in, but you put your best face on and get through it. We have come out ok, and things seem to be getting better. The media stuff was a godsend and since professional rugby returned in August of last year there have not been many weekends where I haven’t been working.
Looking towards the future, what are your future ambitions with your life beyond rugby?
Definitely to progress with the media work, it has been incredible, to have worked throughout the Premiership, Europe and on Internationals. Also, to get back into coaching, I feel I haven’t coached properly in a long time, so I want to help a lot of the kids whose seasons have been disrupted recently. To get stuck into it will be great. On the whole I want to make sure I make the most of opportunities.
Lastly, we can’t not talk about the Lions, what are your predications for the series?
Ah it’s going to be great. I am glad it’s going ahead, but it will be tricky out there, and I think it will be closer than maybe people have thought. We saw in the World Cup what playing for the Springboks means to the South Africans, there is all sorts going on in South Africa right now, and I feel the test matches will give them an opportunity to come together. South Africa have played one test match in two years since winning the World Cup, so if they turn over the Lions, imagine that story! I am excited, South Africa have a great squad, but I am going to stick with my gut and say the Lions will do it!