When Maro Itoje takes to the angle in Paris on February 2 to activate England’s Six Nations campaign, he will backpack a abundant accountability of apprehension on his shoulders. The 25-year-old additional row – nicknamed “the Pearl” because he’s such a adored aptitude – has been hailed as a “once in a generation” player, a future captain of England and the British Lions. Aback in November, a Apple Cup winner’s badge aloof eluded him, but above England captain Martin Johnson declared the team’s 19-7 achievement over the All Blacks in the semi-final as the greatest achievement anytime by an England team. The man of that match? Maro Itoje.
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At 6ft 5in and 18 stone, Itoje has been declared as a “one-man accident ball”, but that doesn’t do amends to his talents. On top of actuality a colossus of apple rugby, he’s additionally a SOAS backroom graduate, part-time poet, self-styled best Connect 4 amateur and a alpha appearance clothes horse on the books of Models 1 – admitting one with a shoe admeasurement of 13½ and an 88cm inside-leg measurement.
In person, he is cautiously announced and offers a decidedly un-vice-like handshake. We accommodated at the training arena of his club, Saracens, abreast St Albans on a bleary winter morning. If he’d followed his parents’ dreams for him, he wouldn’t be actuality at all. His father, a teacher, would accept had him a broker or accountant; his mother, who works in property, would accept adopted it if he’d played tennis and become a doctor. “One day, I ability assignment up the adventuresomeness to breach it to her that the address has sailed,” he has said.
Rugby was never declared to be a thing. “My ancestry is from Nigeria,” he says. “Rugby isn’t alike in the chat with best Nigerian parents. Growing up, I never knew what rugby was, almost accepted it, hated watching it on TV.” It was his headmaster, a above Saracens amateur at Salcombe basic academy in arctic London, who spotted Itoje’s potential. “I started arena aback I was 11 and appealing abundant aloof kept on progressing,” he says of his aboriginal aftertaste of rugby at accessory school, the accompaniment boarding academy St George’s in Harpenden (whose above pupils accommodate his all-embracing teammates Owen Farrell and George Ford). “But in my family, action was article to be enjoyed and done to accumulate fit – there was never a big focus put on it. It was consistently about education, belief and all that affectionate of stuff.”
In sixth form, Itoje won a sports scholarship to Harrow where, admitting actuality the alone boy in his chic who put up his duke aback the abecedary asked who would vote Labour, he accepted the arcane, adorable dress codes: “I absolutely absolutely enjoyed accomplishing up my bow tie, cutting my top hat, walking with my cane.” His cane? “If you were a monitor you’d be accustomed the advantage to authority a cane. A lot of bodies resented it, but I aloof begin it absolutely cool,” he says.
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By the time he went to SOAS to abstraction politics, rugby was accepting serious. He fabricated his able admission at Saracens age-old 19 and captained England to achievement in the U20 Apple Championship. But he ashore with his studies, admission with a 2:1. He was awarded his aboriginal all-embracing cap aged 21, and by the age of 24 had won two Six Nations tournaments, four premierships and three European Cup titles. But about boss you are in battle, you can’t win them all. Aback we meet, it’s aloof two and a bisected weeks afterwards England’s accident to South Africa in the Apple Cup final, and Itoje is, unsurprisingly, still anguish from defeat. “It was absolutely the toughest defeat I’ve anytime accomplished in terms of emotion, in agreement of the bulk of accomplishment that you put into accepting there. In agreement of everything.”
I ask Itoje how a aggregation can go from the aerial of their annihilation of New Zealand to the disappointment of their achievement in the final adjoin South Africa. What could they accept done to change things on the pitch? “I think we struggled to acclimate to what was happening: we struggled to acclimate to the referee, we struggled to acclimate to what South Africa were doing. And the sad affair is that we didn’t absolutely get our bold going, we didn’t absolutely blaze a punch or absolutely get into the bold – which is probably, aback I attending back, the best black thing.”
One attempt of the after-effects of the final shows Itoje and his teammates staring blankly into the distance; the England coach, Eddie Jones, stands aloof abaft Itoje, accoutrements crossed, aperture pursed ruefully. A straight-talking Australian, allegorical for his Stakhanovite assignment belief and addiction to accelerate and apprehend answers to emails at bristles in the morning, Jones cuts a appealing alarming figure. He has accomplished Itoje into a world-class player. He also, in one of their aboriginal meetings, told him that he looked a bit too appealing and could do with some added scars on his face. Itoje accurately bankrupt his jaw (“I got head-butted on the pitch. By mistake, allegedly. I candidly angry into Buzz Lightyear”). He took Jones’s accord in acceptable humour. “I don’t absolutely appetite any added injuries, to be honest,” he laughs, “but Eddie has all these altered ways, funny means of accepting the best out of bodies in his affected and his squad. And he’s consistently attractive to innovate, consistently attractive to change and adapt.” Indeed, in the weeks that followed the Apple Cup, Jones agitated out a root-and-branch check of his apprenticeship staff. We’ll get our aboriginal aftertaste of how the England aggregation of the approaching will attending and comedy tomorrow.
Itoje is assured the Apple Cup should be apparent as a beginning, not an end. “I anticipate with the age contour of the team, there’s still added advance larboard in it, and we can become the aggregation we appetite to be. And I see no acumen why that can’t alpha at the Six Nations. Afterwards the final I anticipation to myself: I never appetite to acquaintance this again. So I’m actual agog to get aback in an England shirt and alpha alive again.”
The England captaincy, meanwhile, is still in the easily of his Saracens assistant Owen Farrell, but Itoje is acutely accessible for administration if, à la Boris Johnson, the ball should appear apart at the aback of the scrum: “I anticipate the added leaders you accept in a aggregation the better, really.”
When asked about his role models, Itoje talks about Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson, Muhammad Ali, and Kwame Nkrumah, the aboriginal admiral of Ghana. He also speaks in the warmest tones about his parents. “They’ve played a huge allotment in my life, instilling a lot of my values, allowance me appearance the actuality I am today.” Whatever their aboriginal thoughts about his career in rugby, they are now his staunchest supporters.
We additionally allocution about racism in sport. He batten out angrily on the accountable aback a cardinal of England footballers were abused during the All-embracing in Bulgaria aftermost October, but he’s nuanced and accurate when it comes to comparing the ability of rugby to football. “It’s not to say rugby is the absolute picture, but I think in rugby there’s a big accent on respect,” he says. “And the ability of rugby is beneath annoying and rude. It’s a lot added ‘humble in victory, apprehensive in defeat’ kind of thing. Football’s such an affecting sport, it’s tribal. And bodies chase clubs like it’s their religion. So it can either accomplish you celebrating with joy or depressed with acrimony and envy.”
Anger, envy… the seven baleful sins. Itoje’s Christian acceptance underscores aggregate in his life, alike aback he’s arrest opponents. “For me, activity is a lottery,” he says. “You can be built-in into any circumstance, any situation. So when I’m advantageous abundant to do the things I do I’m aloof abundantly grateful, because I accept it’s not from my doing, it’s from the big man upstairs,” he says.
Or big woman. Itoje has declared himself as a advanced feminist – can any man allow to be annihilation beneath today? “I anticipate the world’s changing,” he says. “A lot of things that were accustomed to go on in the accomplished – as you can see with contempo contest – are not actuality accustomed any more. And this change is all for the good.”
If Itoje is the approaching of the rugby player, this is absolutely all for the good. In fact, he’s affectionate of too acceptable to be true, and yet I acquisition my gnarled, cynical, middle-aged cocky absent to be him. I anticipate we can cautiously accept that he didn’t go out on the boondocks and alcohol himself into abeyance afterward England’s Apple Cup defeat. Maybe a account or two. “I’m not a big drinker,” he says. “I abhorrence beer, I abhorrence wine, which is not so acceptable if you’re in a rugby team. I’m not teetotal, but it’s not article that I admiration massively.” As for girlfriends, he already told a bi-weekly that if he were to accord his adolescent cocky a allotment of admonition about girls it would be to accept wisely. Actual wisely. Has he? He pauses a beat, again laughs. “Next question.”
The modelling, it seems, comes appealing artlessly as well. Unlike a lot of rugby players, he seems to accept an congenital sense of style. Although he looks a bit abashed aback I say so. “I assumption so, yes. In my accord group, if you dress badly, anybody lets you apperceive about it,” he says. Do they generally booty him bottomward for how he dresses, and what for? “I’m commonly all right. It’s added the rugby fraternity. They accept a set look, and sometimes aback you try and accomplish your attending in altered ways – so things they’re not too adequate with – they try to accompany you down. But you accept to break strong.” As a adage for Itoje’s activity so far and for what’s to come, he could do a lot worse than that.
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