Maro Itoje exclusive: The modest Saracens, England and British and Irish Lions megastar determined to keep his feet firmly on the ground

 
Ross McLean
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Australia v England
Itoje is currently studying for a politics degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London

Rugby's equivalent of basketball superstar LeBron James is just one analogy aimed at, and promptly rejected by, Saracens and England powerhouse Maro Itoje, whose unceasing rise and catalogue of accolades shows no sign of subsiding.

“It’s hyperbole,” Itoje tells City A.M. “Those kind of things are nice but you don’t pay too much attention to them. Sport is very fickle and after a couple of poor or average performances you can quickly be disregarded.”

Such understatement typifies Harrow-educated Itoje, an imposing 6ft 5ins lock and flanker who was heralded as the breakthrough player of the year at November’s World Rugby Awards and named Europe’s best a year ago.

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He is also a Grand Slam and two-time Six Nations winner and over the coming weeks can help Saracens claim a second successive domestic and continental double, before jetting off to New Zealand for a maiden British and Irish Lions tour.

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Itoje has flourished for England since his debut against Italy (Source: Getty)

Itoje – erudite and engaging – is still only 22. While hugely promising, three years ago the former England Under-20 skipper was turning out for Old Albanian in National League One – a scene far removed from a Lions series against the All Blacks.

Recognised

Future England captain, the sport’s highest-ever earner and an outlandish target for NFL sides are all projections fired at Itoje. But the son of Nigerian parents, who is in is the final year of a politics degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, is intent on remaining grounded.

“To be fair, my day-to-day life has not changed that much. I’m still studying, which will hopefully finish this summer or September depending on when I do my finals, my family is still the same and I’m still at the same club,” he adds.

“The day-to-day things haven’t changed but when you step out of that bubble, you do realise that you are more recognised than you were a couple of years ago.

“Saracens and England are two great environments to be a part of because once you get ahead of yourself, rugby culture finds a way to put you back down. I have got a good family network around me and they provide me with a shoulder to lean on, so I haven’t found it difficult [to remain grounded] as of yet.”

Hype

Itoje’s tendency to downplay his achievements and dampen hype surrounding his enduring potential fades, momentarily, when considering his desire to become a world-class performer and the incremental improvements required.

“I have a fair distance to go. I think I’m good but I am by no means the complete player,” he added.

“It’s a goal which I will try and work towards. It’s a fairly ambitious goal but if I can increase one per cent at least each year throughout my career then it will get me closer to where I want to be.

“It has always been about progressing: making sure I improve as a player and improve as a person, making sure I become a more rounded individual.”

The rung of a British and Irish Lions tour on his career ladder is fast approaching. Itoje is the youngest member of Warren Gatland’s 41-man squad and will therefore be entrusted with the iconic soft-toy mascot, Billy.

Humbling

Perhaps somewhat underlining his tender years, Itoje’s first memory of the Lions was their last visit to South Africa when Sir Ian McGeechan’s side, captained by Ireland’s Paul O’Connell, succumbed 2-1 to the Springboks.

“The first Lions tour I vividly remember was 2009 and since then it has struck the imagination, struck a chord about how special it is, the best of the best of the British and Irish isles coming together,” said Itoje.

“It’s something you aspire to as a kid and now that I’m an adult and have the opportunity to take part, it’s a humbling honour.”

Even in the joy of Lions selection, Itoje is unwilling to allow too much self-congratulation with the next hurdle already in mind, adding: “Maro Itoje, British and Irish Lion, sounds good. You’ve got to play first but it does sound good.”

Itoje’s inexperience is something Gatland believes New Zealand may look to exploit, although the north London-born forward considers that such battles, if they are won, could have long-term benefits for England.

“We are striving to be the No1 side in the world and at the moment we’re not,” said Itoje.

“It’s important for us to learn how to beat New Zealand and try and learn how to beat them on a regular basis.

“They are the benchmark of world rugby at the moment and in a position which we want to surpass.”

Crown

Prior to a first taste of Lions action, Saracens academy graduate Itoje has the chance to swell his trophy cabinet with a third consecutive Premiership crown and second European Champions Cup gong.

Sarries travel to top-flight leaders Wasps on Saturday bidding to seal a home play-off semi-final, while next week back-to-back European crowns beckon against Clermont Auvergne at Murrayfield – as does confirmation of the club’s winning culture.

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Itoje could help Saracens to a second successive European and domestic double (Source: Getty)

“I was fortunate to come into a team halfway along its path,” added Itoje, who is set to be rested for the Ricoh Arena showdown.

“Before I was fully part of the team, they went to Premiership finals, both won and lost there, went to European finals and semi-finals and both won and lost them.

“So they’ve been through heartbreak and through the tough times, times when nobody backed us and everyone doubted us. A core group of players have experienced that.

“It has now reached a point where the team has a good amount of experience in high-pressured situations which ultimately helps in our quest.”

He continued: “The mantra we have at Saracens is about making memories, long-lasting memories. It is about going to tough places, winning trophies and creating memories.

“A second successive double would be great but it really is about focusing on the here and now, we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”

It would be hard to imagine Itoje allowing that to happen.

Ricoh ambassador Maro Itoje was speaking at the launch of the latest video in the Ricoh Rugby Change Series which looks at the key changes in rugby since the onset of professionalism. To explore these changes visit: www.ricoh.co.uk/rugbychange.

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