Maro Itoje: British and Irish Lions star finds balance between on and off-field ambitions

It is fair to say that, since bursting onto the international stage as part of England’s Grand Slam-winning 2016 Six Nations team, Maro Itoje has transcended the world of rugby union like few others before him.

There are, for example, few players who you would find appearing on the cover of high-society magazine Tatler or featuring in a fashion shoot for Ralph Lauren, not least of all those hard-bitten forwards well-versed in the dark arts and arcane practises of the breakdown as the 26-year-old is.

The British and Irish Lions second row’s profile is further underlined by the fact he, along with the captain of Test series opponents South Africa, Siya Kolisi, is represented by the Roc Nation agency owned by rapper Jay-Z.

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Holder of a politics degree from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies too, Itoje has a wide range of interests off the field. Yet whatever else is going on off the field, his focus always remains on being the best he can on it.

“The way I see all of that kind of stuff, and I guess I’ve been fortunate or unfortunate, whichever way you want to look at it, to have a lot of rhetoric around myself – both good and bad, sometimes – is you just need to focus on what you need to focus on,” Itoje told Sky Sports.

“You need to focus on the craft, focus on the rugby, focus on your goals and your objectives, and if you focus on that then everything really does take care of itself. With athletes, the most important thing is always the craft, and once you look after the rugby everything else outside of it falls into place.

“That’s always been my mantra. Whatever I do off the field, whether it’s studying or commercial stuff, I always keep rugby at the forefront of what I need to do and once I get that right then things will fall into place thereafter.”

Whatever I do off the field, whether it’s studying or commercial stuff, I always keep rugby at the forefront of what I need to do and once I get that right then things will fall into place thereafter.

Maro Itoje

Given his interests range far beyond the rugby field, it is little surprise to see Itoje standing up in the fight against racism and inequality either. Indeed, prior to heading out to South Africa with the Lions he curated an art exhibition exploring black histories which are overlooked in the school curriculum.

He was one of the players who took a knee ahead of kick-off in last Saturday’s first Lions Test against the Springboks in Cape Town, while he also spoke out in support of the England footballers who faced racist abuse following the team’s Euro 2020 final penalty shootout defeat to Italy.

Itoje is in no doubt racism is more of a societal issue rather than just one facing rugby union or any other sports though.

“I think we’re probably naive about racism generally, I wouldn’t necessarily restrict it to rugby,” Itoje said.

“I would argue rugby is better than some other sports as we’ve seen in the last couple of months. However, as a society and a country I still think we’re wrestling with this problem.”

On the field, Itoje was front and centre for the Lions as they fought back from being 12-3 down at half-time to beat South Africa 22-17 in the first Test of the three-match series against the Rugby World Cup holders, earning the man-of-the-match accolade.

He is one of five Saracens players in Warren Gatland’s squad, having earned a place despite playing his club rugby in the second-tier Championship this year following Sarries’ enforced relegation due to salary cap breaches.

It meant that, post-Six Nations, matches against the English and European elite were replaced with trips to the likes of Coventry, Doncaster and Ealing as Saracens eventually reclaimed their place in the Premiership, but Itoje believes he and his clubmates were still well-prepared for the tour.

“I haven’t played top-flight rugby since the end of the Six Nations, but from the end of the Six Nations to the second week of the Jersey camp I played pretty much every weekend leading up to the Lions,” Itoje said.

“I’ve played consistently since then and it’s some attritional stuff down there. They played some physical rugby, but all these cameras stopped coming for some reason when we were in the Championship!”

Injuries permitting, Itoje should have plenty of years ahead of him in his rugby career and he still has ambitions he is keen to achieve – one of which would be sealing a series victory with the Lions, which the tourists can do on Saturday with victory in the second Test.

But he has plenty more he wants to achieve off the field too, even if he does not have a clear idea of what path his life will take when the time comes to hang up his boots.

“Being a great rugby player is definitely my goal and definitely something I want to achieve, and definitely something I’m aspiring to be,” Itoje said.

“Hopefully, when all is said and done, I’ll have achieved that, but I came to rugby late. I started playing at 11 years old, my family is not a rugby family and I don’t come from a culture which is defined by rugby or holds it in a specific regard compared to other aspects of our lives.

“I’ve always been interested in other things and doing other things and achieving in other areas of life which are independent of rugby.

“Of course, I want to be a really great rugby player, but I also want to be successful in other avenues or dimensions of my life I want to achieve in.”

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