Lions icon Maro Itoje on being ready to beat the Springboks and spread the rugby gospel

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Maro Itoje runs his index finger along a scar on his right hand. “I’ve got a few now,” he says, recalling how Eddie Jones questioned his lack of scars during their first meeting. “There are a few occupational hazards, but hopefully I can keep the scars to a minimum!”

Today, no one doubts Itoje’s commitment to the cause. His old wound catches the midday sun in a north London park near his home. Occasionally on the way back from school a group of teenagers pass by and call his name admiringly.

“We probably didn’t pick the best place for this,” he adds with a chuckle, after becoming one of the sport’s most recognizable faces.

Lions star Maro Itoje wants to use his voice to attract new fans to rugby in the future

Itoje has established itself as a voice for racial equality, education and African art

Itoje has established itself as a voice for racial equality, education and African art

Itoje’s status has grown far beyond the traditional rugby community. He has established himself as a voice for racial equality, education, African art and played on the Tatler front. He has a deep-rooted passion for his native Nigeria, which he shares with boxing heavyweight Anthony Joshua.

“I’ve met AJ a few times now,” he says, when asked about a recent photo of the couple on his social media. “We have a bit in common because we’re both from similar parts of the world: Nigeria, and we grew up close to each other in London.

“I like the heavyweights more than the YouTubers fighting boxers. I was hoping AJ vs Tyson Fury would happen, but it doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon.

‘It’s a great sport. Survival of the fittest, but what really gets me excited about sports is the storyline within and around it. Everything interesting in life revolves around storytelling and storytelling. Politics, movies, documentaries. That gives an extra taste. AJ has a compelling story and he did a great job telling it.

“Boxing has the ability to cross over to different audiences. I think it’s a simpler sport… essentially hitting each other to see who wins. If you are a successful heavyweight boxer, you have more of a transition to popular culture than a cricketer or a rugby player. There’s a primal instinct in it.’

Although Itoje and Joshua have many similarities, their upbringing was vastly different. Growing up on a municipal estate, Joshua had clashes with the police. Itoje is a highly educated alumnus of the prestigious Harrow School. He wants his voice to help extend rugby’s reach into popular culture.

“Rugby is good at marketing to its own people and preaching to the choir. I don’t think it’s that good at marketing to new people.

Itoje says rugby isn't as good at marketing to new people as other sports like boxing

Itoje says rugby isn’t as good at marketing to new people as other sports like boxing

Itoje pictured with Anthony Joshua who he says is 'doing a good job telling his story'

Itoje pictured with Anthony Joshua who he says is ‘doing a good job telling his story’

“If you look at the Premiership club’s 12 Instagram pages, all you have to do is change the badge and the shirt and it’s the same. Rugby is the little brother of a big sport like football, so it needs to do more than football to attract a new audience. It could be better in terms of telling the stories of the teams and, most importantly, the players.

“It’s the players who really seduce new fans. The personalities. Rugby can tell those stories better and with that I think it will have a broader scope.’

Itoje’s brushstrokes largely stem from his passion for Africa. His Instagram page features independence speeches and colorful fashions, far from the traditional image of the sport of chinos and wax jackets.

Brands wants to associate with his status and here he speaks on behalf of Land Rover, an official sponsor of this summer’s Lions tour of South Africa. Many of his family still live in Nigeria and before Covid he liked to visit them during summer vacations.

“Rugby is close to my heart and so is Nigeria. Many Nigerians are not familiar with rugby, but I do think it is attractive.

‘Large parts of the country are wet for large parts of the year and that is ideal for rugby. The last time I went to Nigeria, in 2018, I saw a little boy wearing a Lions shirt and I thought, “Where did you get that?” It’s not usual. He probably had no idea what that shirt means. There is a lot of talent there. When you look at the West African individuals who have practiced their craft here in the UK, there is so much talent.

Itoje is ready for a heavyweight of his own on the Lions tour of South Africa

Itoje is ready for a heavyweight of his own on the Lions tour of South Africa

‘There are many French-speaking African natives in France who play at a high level. There’s a base there and the sooner rugby can get to some of those markets the better. It would take a lot of pressure to get people into the game and, as with most things, it has to start in schools. It grows from there.’

Next month’s Lions tour may just provide the ideal platform. It will be rugby’s equivalent of heavyweight boxing as the best of the British Isles take on the world champion Springboks. Itoje will be at the heart of the arm struggle, which may leave some with a few new scars to tell the tale.

‘First and foremost, it is a beautiful country. It’s always fun to step on African soil, so I’m looking forward to it. South Africa is of course very different from the rest of Africa when it comes to rugby. Many of the other South African countries such as Uganda, Zimbabwe and Kenya would all be extremely excited about this tour.

“The Lions is something that doesn’t need to be sold too much. It is one of the few events that drives people crazy. It will be very spicy, I’m sure. The Springboks have their way of playing and that doesn’t change much.

“I like it when the game gets physical and the game gets tough. If you let them go, it’s hard to stop.

Itoje will be at the heart of the battle in South Africa for his second British and Irish Lions Tour

Itoje will be at the heart of the battle in South Africa for his second British and Irish Lions Tour

“They deservedly won the World Cup final. The way they play hasn’t really changed. They’ve always had a strong set piece, physical, kick game, kick chase.

‘That is the hallmark of South African rugby. There’s a difference between knowing what’s coming and stopping it, that’s what we have to do.’

And maybe the sport will pick up a new fan or two along the way, in North London and beyond.

Maro Itoje is a Land Rover Ambassador. Keep up with Land Rover’s Lions Adventure @LandRoverRugby #LionsAdventure

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