England star Maro Itoje on Brexit, his Nigerian heritage and winding up opponents: ‘Some people find the way I play annoying… but I don’t care’
‘I am not really concerned about the feelings of people I play against,’ says Maro Itoje – a steeliness to his tone.
‘I try my best not to do anything to actively aggravate someone, but I know some people find the way I play annoying from speaking to them.
‘That is neither here nor there for me – I can live with that very, very easily. My main thing when I go out and play is doing whatever I can to make my team win, and everything else secondary to that.’
Maro Itoje sits down for an exclusive chat withSportsmailahead of his 100th Saracens match
His ‘locked’ hair flops loosely on his head, the more errant strands have to be swept away
It’s the shouting, it’s the clapping. It’s the trademark in-your-face-Itoje that winds up the opposition.
Then – as if to prove his next point – the England forward eases his 6ft 6in frame back, slumping into the wooden chair he sits on at Saracens’ Old Albanians training ground.
‘Off the pitch I am pretty relaxed,’ he grins widely – the determination gone from his voice in an instant.
His right leg is fully stretched out in front of him. The left is cocked at the knee almost in another postcode on the other side of his splayed body.
He wears comfortable light grey tracksuit bottoms that taper into the ankle, slightly grubby white trainers on his feet, and a long-sleeved dark blue velvet T-shirt. This is his post-training attire.
Itoje admits he knows his aggressive, in-your-face style of play is annoying for his opponents
The gold chain around his neck peers out of his collar. Sometimes the crucifix dangling from it ventures up to his chin when he leans forward, before falling down.
His ‘locked’ hair flops loosely on top of his head – not restricted now by the black scrum cap he always dons on the field – the more errant strands have to be swept slowly, and purposefully out of his eyes. The hairstyle takes two-and-a-half hours to perfect.
‘I don’t suffer from hyper-masculinity where I try and walk down the street bumping or barging into people – that is not my vibe or my style,’ Itoje continues.
‘I am pretty relaxed, relatively easy-going as well, so it is no bother.’ In the space of a minute-long answer Itoje neatly sums up his dichotomous world.
Confrontational. Relaxed. Vocal. Softly-spoken. Destructive. Chilled. He can be terse, monosyllabic and curt too as well as engaging, affable and expansive.
It is when he begins to speak about history, politics and heritage when he starts to come alive
The Saracens and England lock sits down to speak exclusively withSportsmail’sWill Kelleher
When Itoje first sits down for an exclusive interview withSportsmailahead of his 100th match for Saracens, the 23-year-old seems more interested in the pineapple, strawberries and watermelon on the paper plate he holds in his left hand than he does the questions he is being asked.
‘Did you know it was your 100th this weekend?,’ is the half-volley loosener. ‘Yep,’ Itoje bats back – dropping a pip from his mouth to the plate.
But after few minutes – when it is made clear the rugby chat is over – he quickly comes alive.
Time to talk politics, history and heritage. Down goes the plate, up comes the head. Eyes facing forward. Brain fully engaged.
Itoje’s parents, Efe and Florence, are both Nigerian. They own houses in Lagos and London. Itoje’s late grandfather used to live further south east, near Warri.
‘I have been back every summer for the past three or four years,’ Itoje explains. ‘I used to go for the whole summer when I was much younger but when I joined the Saracens Academy I went for the whole summer, came back and could barely run!
‘Too much food and not enough exercise. When you are in Nigeria it is not too conducive to doing a lot of physical work, unfortunately!’
The grin returns. Itoje is a proud African – a proud Nigerian. A ‘narrow, Eurocentric, Anglophone’ education at Harrow did not satisfy his desire to know the truth of the continent he originated from – his thirst unquenched.
‘I have been back every summer for the past three or four years,’ Itoje says of Nigeria
Itoje is a proud African – a proud Nigerian – and speaks extremely fondly of his heritage
Dressed to thrill: Itoje in traditional Nigerian dress with mum Florence, 58, and sister Isabel, 21
‘I am in no way saying I am a complete fountain of knowledge, because I am far from that, but I got to a point where I was 18 and I didn’t really know that much about that history,’ he says.
‘Before I reached the age of 18 in school the only things I learned about Africa were briefly touched on the slave trade, briefly touched on Colonialism, and maybe very, very, very briefly touched on independence and maybe aid.
‘All those things paint a very negative, inaccurate picture of the full nature of what Africa and African countries are about. Today that is backed up by the news coverage, all these negative connotations about Africa which are constantly perpetuated through the media.’
So reading Politics at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies helped widen horizons.
Itoje completed his degree – with extended essays on international aid and the Nigerian Civil War which gained him a 2:1 – in 2017, but could not graduate as the British & Irish Lions tour, and a coming-of-age performance against the All Blacks in Wellington, got in the way. His two worlds colliding again.
He swapped scrum cap for mortarboard this summer instead, the Westpac Stadium din for a ‘loud, energetic’ graduation ceremony right up his street.
The 23-year-old missed his graduation last summer to take on the All Blacks for the Lions
Instead, the second-row had to settle for his graduation ceremony this summer
Nigerian feminist novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker and architect Sir David Adjaye spoke, and piqued his interest.
‘I enjoyed putting on the gown, enjoyed the whole process,’ he reflects. ‘My sister also graduated a few weeks before, and her ceremony was nice, but very dry in comparison to SOAS.’
Monday marked Nigeria’s 58th year of independence. To celebrate Itoje was arrayed in traditional dress and entertained – along with his mum and 21-year-old sister Isabel – at a swanky dinner at Claridge’s Hotel by Lux Afrique, a company which describes themselves as ‘a gateway to luxury brands – focused on luxury watches, cars, travel, real estate and events’.
This is the type of company he keeps now. The second-row was on the cover of Tatler magazine’s October issue alongside Lady Amelia Windsor – hardly something you would see former England lock Martin Johnson doing – but Itoje still maintains rugby is his focus.
‘I want to be the most holistic person I can be,’ he says. ‘Rugby will always be the most important thing for however long I play – but it is also important to experience other walks of life, and what it is like not in the rugby bubble.’
‘Rugby will always be the most important thing for however long I play,’ he divulges
He has a keen eye on boxing and is a big fan of fellow British-Nigerian Anthony Joshua
He has a keen eye on boxing’s heavyweight division and another British-Nigerian flying the flag on the world stage – Anthony Joshua.
‘I am a big heavyweight boxing fan – I don’t care as much about the lower weights,’ he smiles.
‘I went to two of his fights on the way up very soon after the 2012 Olympics. I would love to go and watch him become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
‘To be spoken about in the same breath as someone like AJ is awesome. He has brought the excitement back into boxing. Nigerians tend to do well, wherever we go. I am very proud of where I come from.’
Itoje is sure of his opinions too – and concerned about the future of Britain. ‘Politics in this country is in a very fragmented place,’ he says with furrowed brow.
‘I feel as if a lot of people feel they don’t have a political home anymore. A lot are upset with Brexit and the deal that’s probably going to happen.
‘I was a Remainer so I would like it not to happen to be honest, I am in favour of the People’s Vote.’
‘I was a Remainer so I would like Brexit not to happen to be honest,’ Itoje weighed in
The voices of athletes are growing louder. Itoje is hardly Serena Williams, LeBron James, Mesut Ozil or Colin Kapernick in terms of global influence, and cannot point to much of a struggle to where he is now, but recognises the importance of speaking out.
‘People are very quick to try and silence athletes,’ he says. ‘”You’re just an athlete what do you know about politics?” That is a dumbfounding statement – what more right does a plumber, architect or builder have to air their opinion than anyone else?’
This is where his opposing characters merge. Vocal. Conspicuous. Challenging. At the Stoop on Saturday night against Harlequins, Itoje will be all that for the 100th time in Saracens black.
But he did not always have the strut, the swagger, the self-confidence. ‘I remember my first ever game of rugby,’ he reminisces.
‘I was 11 years old in Harpenden, and I couldn’t sleep before the game. It was a school game against Haberdashers; nothing was on the line, no salaries, no points, it was a school game, and I couldn’t sleep because I was so nervous.’
On Saturday night, against Harlequins, Itoje will walk out for his 100th appearance for Sarries
His first for Sarries in 2013 – a 19-11 win against Cardiff Blues when he was 18 – had him shaking too.
‘I was trembling before in the final huddle before we went out,’ he remembers. ‘”Uncle Nils” – Nils Mordt who was the fly-half that day – put his arm round me and said “Maro, you’re going to be alright.”
‘I said “thank you”. It was a good day. Once we got on the pitch and started playing it was fine.
‘Sport is a very fickle world. You are hot one week, ice-cold the next and you can go from hero to villain very quickly.’ So sometimes in sport, and in life, it pays to see both sides.