Maro Itoje: Racism in rugby and the power of education

Watch ITV News sports editor's interview with rugby star Maro Itoje

When Maro Itoje sat reading a children’s story to a group of wide-eyed youngsters on the outskirts of Lagos in Nigeria, they had no idea they were listening to and looking at one of the most recognisable faces in world rugby.

To them Itoje is the simply the gentle giant who’d come to give them opportunities they would otherwise never have had.

He’s doing that through his ‘Pearl Fund’ which aims to break the cycle of poverty in parts of Nigeria and Ghana and allow children to achieve their full potential through schooling and beyond.

“We are starting right from the first year of primary school and the plan is to support the children throughout, from primary to secondary, support them in their tertiary education, or if they come with a business proposal, we'll support them there,” he said.

Born in London to Nigerian parents, Itoje had a relatively privileged education ending up with a scholarship to Harrow school; he recognises what that has given him.

“I'm a big believer in the power of education and how education can change one's life trajectory. But we also know that the kids that we are trying to work with are the most disadvantaged kids in society. So, the criteria is orphaned, fatherless, or abject poverty.”

But why Nigeria and Ghana?

England's Maro Itoje. Credit: PA

Itoje has a deep connection to the continent and especially his Nigerian heritage. That is best illustrated through his love for African art; he’s not only a collector but he also helps promote young Nigerian artists.

“I think as a Nigerian British individual who was born and raised in London, it makes me feel like I'm connected to Africa when I'm surrounded by African art, when I'm obviously in an environment that isn't Nigeria, I think it’s a reminder of my heritage and I guess it touches my soul in a way that most other art doesn't.”

I’m sitting down with Itoje surrounded by African art at the TAFETA gallery in central London.

It’s World Cup year of course and rugby has just been through a tumultuous year. Not only did England’s Premiership lose three clubs, the RFU sacked head coach Eddie Jones and the shadow of long term brain injuries continued to hover over the sport, but an investigation following claims by former England player Luther Burrell unearthed a streak of racism running through the game.

Luther Burrell won 15 caps for England during his career. Credit: PA

“It was tough to read, it was tough to even think about. So, I was absolutely appalled but it surprised me a little bit on how some people would think jokes or comments like that wereby any means acceptable.”

Itoje admitted that he’d been the subject of incidents of racism but refused to be drawn on any detail.

He is a thoughtful, intelligent man and while he’s a staunch anti-racist activist he clearly did not believe now was the time to elaborate on personal experiences.

“I don't want to go over things that have been dealt with in the past.”

“Racism has never influenced my performance, or a coach's selection of me, but there have been incidents that I would classify as racist. I would say that's probably as a result of maybe unconscious bias, sometimes it was ignorance and sometimes it was ignorant racism.”

Maro Itoje tells Steve Scott that 'racism has never influenced my performance or a coach's selection of me'

He believes that his sport does take tackling racism seriously and is making continued progress.

Where rugby has also been found wanting is its financial model among the elite clubs. Wasps, Worcester, and London Irish have all gone to the wall this season, but Itoje says thisprovides an opportunity for a reset.

“It's a bit doom and gloom because of what has happened, but I do think there is a great opportunity for us to create a new future for English rugby. There is loads of talent in England, we have the ability to make an exciting product, to restructure the game, restructure the premiership, restructure the championship. We have to get bums on seats and (keep) the best players.”

Holding on to them might prove increasingly difficult as many more of rugby’s stars are joining the exodus to France and Japan where they can earn more. What’s more, if they dogo, as the rules currently stand, they cannot represent England. 

“We want English players to feel like they can stay in England, that they want to play in England, they want to play for the club that they've grown up supporting and they've grown up in the academies. But with what's going on, it's made that a bit difficult.”

Itoje believes that there is a chance to create a new future for English rugby

So, should the rules be changed? Should players be eligible for England wherever in the world they play?

“My answer very much depends, if we're seeing the salary cap get tighter and tighter and we're seeing a situation where players are forced to take cuts and cuts and cuts and clubs can no longer afford them, then my answer to that would be ‘yes'.”

Eddie Jones was axed as England Head Coach recently after some poor performances in the autumn internationals; the team was going backwards and there were constant rumoursthat the environment under Jones had deteriorated.

Does Itoje think the change at the top was a good move, and what of those suggestions that the England camp had become toxic under Jones? Again, when faced with a potentially trickysubject, Itoje is the model of diplomacy.

Eddie Jones. Credit: PA Images

“I don't know, it’s one of those things, you play a game that is professional and dictated by results. Obviously, the results didn't go our way towards the end of Eddie, and he's theboss, so the buck stops with him. You have to share responsibility, I guess I'm not willing to sit here and say it is all Eddie's fault, but for me it's all about what's to come.”

Itoje is a big fan of Jones’ successor Steve Borthwick and genuinely believes England have time to build momentum to challenge for the World Cup trophy.

“Steve is a fantastic coach. I'm just incredibly excited about what we have going forward, what we have the potential to do. I think we have a squad that's full of talent.”

'There's loads of talent in England': Itoje says there is a chance for English rugby to completely restructure

And what about meeting Jones’ Australia somewhere in the tournament?

“That would be something, wouldn't it? For me though it would just be another game, obviously a big game but I guess it would definitely be interesting from a narrative point of view."

The longer Itoje plays, the greater the risk to his health, specifically the spectre of brain injury that has affected so many former players. The prospect concerns Itoje but he believes players today are far better protected.

England head coach Steve Borthwick during a training session in Brighton. Credit: PA

“It does make you stop and think about the potential ramifications of the sport that you're playing. And the long-term effects it may have on yourself or your body or your life afterrugby.

“But I do think with the situation now where the culture is totally different to what it was, even as a schoolboy playing rugby in 2006, the culture of getting the concussion was that it wasn't really an injury. So, if someone was to get knocked out in the game, the expectation of teammates, coaches, pretty much everyone involved would be like, ‘oh, get up, get up, run it off'.”

“Now it's completely different, the medics are far better, the protocols are far more rigorous and the culture within rugby, within the players, of both teams is totally different now.

“I do think about it. I've had one or two concussions in my time and I was wary, took my time to get back, making sure I was one hundred percent before playing again, but it's not something I lose sleep about.”

Itoje has many plans in retirement although he admits he’s going to find the moment when it comes an emotional and psychological challenge.

Maro Itoje wants to open his own gallery and keep collecting art. Credit: ITV News

He’s just completed an MBA so hasn’t ruled out sports administration as a second career, he wants to open his own gallery, keep collecting art, continue helping young artists and most importantly expand his charitable efforts giving youngsters a real chance to make a successful life for themselves.

By the time he quits rugby, he’ll inevitably have many more options such is Itoje’s versatility and wide range of interests.

In fact, there is only one avenue he has categorically ruled out, and as much as he loves his sport, that is coaching.

But when he does walk away for good, rugby’s loss will certainly benefit many, many others.

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