Matt Maher: A remarkable rise up the ranks for Cheick Kone who had never heard of rugby

There’s never any knowing at what moment your life might change.

Cheick Kone in Worcester Warriors training. (Picture by Robbie Stephenson/JMP)
Cheick Kone in Worcester Warriors training. (Picture by Robbie Stephenson/JMP)

The course of Cheick Kone’s altered significantly in late autumn 2018 when he was sat alone at St Matthias School in Wolverhampton, in trouble after failing to do his homework.

On that same day Matt Jones, academy outreach coach at Worcester Warriors, happened to be running sessions at the school as part of Project Rugby, a scheme funded by the Gallagher Premiership and delivered by the community programmes of its clubs aimed at taking the game to places and people it has previously struggled to find.

After being informed by one teacher there was ‘some big lad in isolation’ he might want to take a look at, Jones decided to investigate.

“I had never heard of rugby. Never played it. I knew nothing about it,” chuckles Kone.

Fast forward two-and-a-half years and the now 18-year-old has just become one of four players from Worcester’s youth ranks promoted to the club’s senior academy, the first recruit of Project Rugby to break into the professional game.

If you think that sounds an interesting journey, you haven’t heard the half of it.

Born in the Ivory Coast, Kone concedes he would probably have been working by the age of 10 had he not left the country with his father just under a decade ago in search of a better life.

After a brief stint living in Italy, they settled in the All Saints area of Wolverhampton six years ago. Kone speaks four languages but admits his aspirations were rather different before he discovered rugby.

“When I was at school, in isolation, I wasn’t focused. There were a lot of other things on my mind,” he says. “It was my last year and I just wanted to go to college and start studying to become a mechanic.

“But rugby gave me the encouragement to try something different. It has given me an opportunity I thought I would never have. I’d really never have guessed I would end up here.”

It didn’t take long for the Warriors to realise they might have something special in Kone. Within three weeks of getting his first touch of a rugby ball during a pop-up session at St Matthias he was playing for the club’s Colts team and from there was drafted into their youth ranks, turning out for the under-17s and 18s while also playing for Wolverhampton in the Midlands League.

The Warriors Community Foundation paid for his travel and for a family to host Kone in Worcester during the week, while he continued his education at Stourport High School and Sixth Form College.

Producing professional players is not the primary aim of Project Rugby. Yet his rapid connection with the sport still encapsulates the core values of the scheme.

“I have found there is a lot of love and friendship in rugby,” explains Kone, who had previously played football and practiced taekwondo, in which his dad is a black belt. “I enjoy playing. I love tackling and carrying the ball. But I like the teamwork too. Everyone helps you out and it is not like you are on your own.

“Rugby has made me more confident. I wasn’t confident before. I have more friends. It has helped me out a lot.”

Kone’s rise through the ranks might be remarkable for someone but Jones, who also works with schools in Birmingham and Shropshire, believes there is a wealth of untapped talent waiting to be found. “There are definitely people with the athletic potential as Cheick,” he says. “But then there are also loads of kids who have never found rugby who have the chance to crash into each other and have fun that way. It is about increasing participation in those areas.”

“There is a lot of talent we may be missing. Working with Matt we are working to make sure we don’t miss out on these people,” adds Warriors academy boss Mike Hall. “Cheick is one of a lot of people the community foundation is working with. It is great he has achieved this feat of becoming the first Project Rugby to go into a senior academy.

“But the project is more around what the game can do for people in the community.

“Cheick speaks about friendship and confidence and Matt does a fantastic job of supporting the families, going out and working in that community and trying to instil some of the values of the game.

“We are very proud of the project. This is a very special case. Most people who are introduced to the game are hopefully continuing to play the game in clubs and schools.”

From a boy who hated homework, meanwhile, Kone has become a keen student of rugby, coaching staff at Worcester impressed by his work ethic and ability to learn quickly.

After a year when disruption caused by the pandemic made it tougher than ever to make decisions on the junior class, he is among those now given the chance to show what they can do alongside the senior players. He is determined to grasp it.

“I am really excited and proud that Worcester have given me the opportunity to improve myself,” says Kone, who plays as a lock forward. “I still have a lot to learn, a long way to go.

“I never thought I would be here but, thanks to God I am. I will try to take the opportunity to carry on, do my best and see where I will go.

“With everything I do I try to give it 100 per cent. I watch videos of where I need to improve and also talk to the coaches about what I need to do to get better,”

“My family are really proud. My dad is always calling me, telling me to keep going, to keep working hard. You never know where hard work can take you.”

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