Maro Itoje opens up about the state of Rugby and reveals his plans to run a club one day
At a time when rugby is crying out for bright minds and innovative, inspirational figures to transform the fortunes of the sport, Maro Itoje has good news about his plans after the game.
The Saracens lock is only 27 but he is already finding out what lies ahead after his retirement from active duty. “I wanted to stay connected to rugby but I don’t want to be a coach or pundit,” he tells Sportsmail. ‘I’m interested in the executive side of the game; help run a club – that sort of thing.’
It’s easy to imagine him as a smart, dynamic presence in boardrooms, helping to galvanize rugby, which is desperate for new managers to pull it out of the quagmire. But to put this part of his vision into context, Itoje has much more on his personal agenda.
England and Saracens lock Maro Itoje has revealed he plans to go into the executive side of rugby
“I’m going to be involved in a few different businesses and I want to continue doing philanthropic work,” he adds. ‘I will probably look to travel more and spend time in Nigeria and other African countries. And hopefully I’ll have a family by then too, so hopefully I can spend some time with my family.
‘You have to make hay when the sun shines, focus on rugby and dedicate your life to it as much as possible, but at the same time you have to prepare for what comes next. Even if I don’t have it completely resolved, I know the direction I want to go in. It’s something I think about a lot.’
Itoje thinks deeply about his career, his sport and the world around him. This is not someone who is content to just train, play and relax. He has a desire to be informed and aware.
The 27-year-old hopes to continue running a club after he hangs up his boots
“I like to know what’s going on,” he says. “I don’t want to live in ignorance.” That comment was in the context of the game’s battle with the specter of concussions, but it applies to all aspects of Itoje’s life.
Thorny problems are grasped by a player who already thinks like an administrator and a businessman. Rugby is in financial turmoil and Itoje recognizes the scale of the crisis.
“It’s quite worrying,” he says. ‘For two clubs, who knows what their future might be and whether they will be here in two years. No one can categorically say one way or the other. It shows that the economy around rugby is not as robust as it should be.
‘Before Covid, most players thought if they signed a contract, come hell or high ground, you’re going to get that money. Then Covid happened and player wages were cut like that.
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‘We need to find a way to make the game more sustainable by making commercial income around the clubs better. Speaking selfishly, we are putting ourselves as a player at a huge risk, and we naturally want to be well compensated for doing so. But the entire rugby industry needs to grow for it to become a sustainable sport. More needs to be done to engage a wider audience because most clubs are losing money. I don’t know if any clubs are making a profit now.
“Commercial income has to go up because the risk of it taking just one man, one owner, to say they don’t want to accept a loss of £4m, £5m, £8m – whatever it is – every year, so the whole community of rugby in that place will collapse.’
The other giant cloud over the oval ball landscape is concussions – and serious health problems affecting former players who join forces to take legal action against the game’s authorities.
Itoje was forced to miss England’s series decider in Australia in July after suffering a blow to the head in the second Test in Brisbane. It was his first episode, but he is grateful for the progress made in this area of player welfare to avoid the mistakes of the past.
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“When you play this game, you put yourself at risk in every practice and every game,” he says. ‘I like to be aware and don’t want to live in ignorance, but at the same time I don’t want to let it dominate all my thoughts, otherwise I’ll be tentative.
‘Gone are the days when it was seen as a weakness to come off the pitch when your head is spinning. I’m very lucky to be playing in this era because back in the early 2000s, until the 2010s really, it had that stigma around it. People would say, “Oh, you’ve just had a stroke, you’ll be fine next week”.
‘Not only would you feel internal pressure to do well, but your teammates would probably mock you or take the p**s off you or call you soft – things like that. But the culture in and around concussions now is miles away from that.
“On top of that, the protocols are now, probably as a result of these unfortunate cases we’ve been hearing about, so much better. Our generation of players is benefiting from the sins of the past in relation to the culture in and around concussion.’
There have also been profound changes on other fronts. Itoje has been a prominent voice on racial diversity and discrimination within the sport and wider society.
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Shortly after England arrived in Australia, they heard revelations from former Red Rose center Luther Burrell about racism he had encountered in the game in an interview with The Mail on Sunday.
Itoje’s view is that some progress has been made, but more needs to be done, faster. “Rugby as a whole does well at that, but it could always do more,” he says. ‘There are more inclusive sports and there are things that could be done better.’
Gesturing towards the pitch at Saracens’ revamped StoneX Stadium, where the team train, he added: “Look out there now – lots of players with different ethnicities and heritages. That wasn’t the case when I first came in. When I first came in, I think me that I was the only black guy with African heritage.That’s about to change.
‘It is taking steps forward, but the challenge is how quickly it progresses and there has to be a sense of urgency. It must happen faster and it must be broader.
“By its very nature – being for all shapes and sizes – rugby is one of the most inclusive sports, but there are still the old stereotypes attached to the game. It could do more to break into different communities. I think it will succeed’.
Itoje believes rugby needs to become ‘more sustainable by improving commercial income’
Its prospects for success are enhanced by the emergence of a black icon who has risen to prominence through his deeds on behalf of his club, England and the Lions, but also his myriad outside interests and projects. Itoje is not playing against Gloucester today due to a minor shoulder injury, but he is always busy. Rest does not come naturally.
“I struggle to switch off,” he says. ‘I struggle to just sit and relax. There is a phrase in the Bible that I can’t remember exactly, but people usually say it when someone has died. “There’s a time to live, there’s a time to die, there’s a time to be happy, there’s a time to be sad”—that’s how it goes, and I feel it.’
As the son of Nigerian parents, Itoje is determined to connect with his African heritage. Over the summer he spent a week in Kenya with the Atlas Foundation to see first-hand the work they do there in his role as a representative for the charity. He was moved by what he encountered.
“I went to Kibera in Nairobi, which is the biggest slum in Africa, and I went to Nanyuki, which is in the middle of Kenya,” he says. ‘It was a truly humbling experience. Even in the difficult situations that many people in Africa face, they find joy. You see the smiles on the children’s faces.
The England lock was forced out against Australia in July after a knock to the head
‘I was in a nursery-primary school and all these kids I’d never seen or met before came up to me and held my hands and hugged me within minutes of meeting me.
CEO of the Atlas Foundation, Boris, spoke about how many of the children lack affection at home. So as soon as they meet someone who is very nice to them, they lap it up and take all the affection they can by being really tactile. It was so heartwarming to see the kids so happy, but underneath it was a sad story.’
There are so many sad stories around at the moment and Itoje’s desire for awareness means he has paid close attention to the cost of living crisis, political upheaval at home and abroad and the war in Ukraine. On a lighter note, he continues to explore his passion for African art and his studies have reached a critical stage with a dissertation on family business succession.
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His areas of interest are endless, but Itoje has a remarkable capacity to manage his time to ensure rugby remains at the centre. In a year’s time, he is destined to be a key figure in England’s quest to win the World Cup. “It’s like Christmas, you know it’s coming but you can’t pay too much attention yet,” he jokes.
“Even though my head isn’t quite on it, it’s definitely in the back of my mind; trying to put myself in the right position when the time comes. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so it’s about individually taking steps forward, so you’re ready. As a player, if you’re lucky, you’re going to play in four World Cups, and that’s if you have a very, very long career. It’s not many bites of the cherry, so you have to make sure, that each one be as effectual as you can.’
More immediately, Itoje is excited about the strategic revolution at Saracens, with a more expansive approach, which was illustrated in the comeback win at Harlequins last Saturday. “We’re adding another dimension to our attack, rather than playing a banal or more simple game, which is probably easier for teams to analyze,” he says.
‘As you saw in the last game, it involves more risk, but if we can execute what we do, we think the element of risk will reduce as we get better at it. It’s still early days, but we want to be a more dynamic team; more of an attacking team with eyes up, rather than a going-through-the-motions team. It’s more tiring, but it’s also fun!’
Fatigue does not appear to be a major factor for Itoje. He is a multidimensional dynamo. There are many more years of playing ahead of him, but when he’s done, his sport could certainly use some of his energy and vision in the boardroom.