Lions icon Maro Itoje on being ready to take on the Springboks

‘I love it when the game gets physical’: Lions icon Maro Itoje on preparing for heavyweight clash against South Africa and using his voice to help attract new fans to rugby

  • Maro Itoje’s status has grown far beyond the traditional rugby community
  • The Lions icon is also a voice for racial equality, education and African art 
  • Itoje will be at the heart of the battle next month during the Lions tour 

Maro Itoje is running his index finger down a scar on his right hand. ‘I’ve got a couple now,’ he says, recalling how Eddie Jones questioned his lack of scars in their first meeting. ‘There are a few occupational hazards out there, but hopefully I can keep the scars to a minimum!’

These days, nobody questions Itoje’s commitment to the cause. His old wound catches the afternoon sun in a north London park, just down the road from his home. Every so often, a group of teenagers walk past on their way back from school and shout his name in admiration.

‘We probably didn’t pick the best place for this,’ he adds, with a chuckle, having become one of sport’s most recognisable faces.

Lions star Maro Itoje wants to use his voice to help attract new fans to rugby going forward

Itoje has established himself as a voice for racial equality, education and African art

Itoje’s status has grown far beyond the traditional rugby community. He has established himself as a voice for racial equality, education, African art and has starred on the front cover of Tatler. He has a deep-rooted passion for his motherland of Nigeria, which he shares with boxing heavyweight Anthony Joshua.

‘I’ve met AJ a few times now,’ he says, when asked about a recent photograph of the pair on his social media. ‘We have a bit in common because we’re both from similar parts of the world: Nigeria, and we grew up not far apart in London.

‘I’m more into the heavyweights than this YouTubers fighting boxers kinda thing. I was hoping AJ versus Tyson Fury would happen but it doesn’t look like it will in the short term.

‘It’s a great sport. Survival of the fittest, but what really makes me excited about sport is the storyline in and around it. Everything that’s interesting in life revolves around storytelling and narratives. Politics, movies, documentaries. That’s what adds an extra flavour. AJ has a compelling story and he’s done a great job of telling it.

‘Boxing has the ability to cross over to different audiences. I guess it’s a simpler sport… essentially punching each other to see who wins. If you’re a successful heavyweight boxer, you have more of a crossover into popular culture than a cricketer or a rugby player. There’s a primal instinct to it.’

While Itoje and Joshua have plenty of common ground, their upbringings were vastly different. Joshua was raised on a council estate and had run-ins with the police, Itoje is a highly-educated alumnus of the prestigious Harrow School. He wants his voice to help expand rugby’s reach into popular culture.

‘Rugby’s good at marketing to its own people and preaching to the choir. I don’t think it’s so good at marketing to new people.

Itoje says rugby isn’t as good at marketing to new people as other sports like boxing

Itoje pictured with Anthony Joshua who he says does a ‘great job of telling his story’

‘If you look at the 12 Premiership club Instagram pages, all you need to do is change the badge and the jersey and it’s the same thing. Rugby’s the little brother to a major sport like football, so it needs to do more than football to engage new audiences. It could do better in terms of telling the narratives of the teams and, most importantly, the players.

‘The players are the ones that truly entice new fans. The personalities. Rugby can do a better job at telling those stories and with that I think it will have a wider brush.’

Itoje’s brushstrokes are largely born out of his passion for Africa. His Instagram page features independence speeches and colourful fashion, far removed from the sport’s traditional image of chinos and wax jackets. 

Brands want to associate with his status and here he is speaking on behalf of Land Rover, an official sponsor of this summer’s Lions tour of South Africa. A lot of his family still live in Nigeria and, before Covid, he enjoyed visiting them during summer breaks.

‘Rugby’s very close to my heart and so is Nigeria. A lot of Nigerians aren’t familiar with rugby but I do think it has the appeal.

‘Large parts of the country are wet for large parts of the year and that lends itself to rugby. The last time I went to Nigeria, in 2018, I saw one little boy wearing a Lions shirt and I thought, “Where did you get that from?” It’s not common. He probably had no idea what that shirt means. There’s loads of talent there. If you just look at the west African individuals who have plied their trade here in the UK, there’s so much talent.

Itoje is ready for a heavyweight scrap of his own during the Lions’ tour of South Africa

‘There’s loads of Francophone African natives in France playing at a high level. There’s a base there and the sooner rugby can get into some of those markets, the better. It would need a lot of push to get people into the game and, as with most things, it needs to start in schools. It grows from there.’

Next month’s Lions tour may well provide the ideal platform. It will be rugby’s equivalent to heavyweight boxing as the best of the British Isles take on the world champion Springboks. Itoje will be at the heart of the arm wrestle, which could leave some with a few new scars to tell the tale.

‘First and foremost, it’s a beautiful country. It’s always nice to step on the African soil so I’m looking forward to it. South Africa is obviously very different to the rest of Africa when it comes to rugby. A lot of the other southern African countries such as Uganda, Zimbabwe, Kenya would all be massively excited about this tour.

‘The Lions is something that doesn’t need too much selling. It’s one of the few events that people go crazy for. It will shape up to be very feisty, I’m sure. The Springboks have their way of playing and it doesn’t change too much.

‘I love it when the game gets physical and the game gets tough. If you allow them to get going, it’s hard to stop.

‘They deservedly won the World Cup final. The way they play hasn’t really changed. They’ve always had a strong set piece, physical, kicking game, kick chase.

‘That’s the hallmark of South African rugby. There’s a difference between knowing what’s coming and stopping it, which is what we need to do.’

And perhaps the sport will pick up one or two new fans along the way, in north London and beyond. 

Maro Itoje is a Land Rover ambassador. Keep up to date with Land Rover’s Lions Adventure @LandRoverRugby #LionsAdventure

Itoje will be at the heart of the battle in South Africa for his second British and Irish Lions Tour

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