Maro Itoje: Saracens and England lock challenges rugby’s status quo

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 Credit: PA Images
Credit: PA Images

Saracens and England lock Maro Itoje feels strongly that rugby could be doing more to expand its reach and take the game to new markets.

After the recent expansion of the Formula One fan-base, driven by Netflix’s Drive to Survive docu-series, Itoje reckons that rugby too can “reach new territories” and “engage with those outside the stereotypical rugby world”.

While World Rugby is attempting to conquer the USA with successive men’s and women’s World Cups, there are no immediate plans to create Formula One-esque interest in the sport.

The Saracens man is adamant that his sport is more entertaining than the premier motorsport competition and wishes to see change so it is viewed by more people.

Marketing is everything

“There’s no way you can tell me Formula One is more exciting than rugby. It is not,” the forward told the Daily Mirror. “Yet it’s definitely packaged better.

“We need to cross-connect and reach new territories. Engage with those outside the stereotypical rugby world. Be more imaginative. Test the waters.

“If rugby is able to do that you will see a growth in the sport, a growth in engagement, a growth in participation.

“If the status quo remains, we’ll get the same results. You can’t expect anything different.”

Rugby’s growth is limited by the fact the majority of professional leagues are ring-fenced, meaning promotion and relegation are non-existent.

This means that there are fewer top-flight rugby teams per nation than say football, where even lower division sides have a large market, loyal fan base and regularly sell-out games.

Just 4,672 fans were present for Sale Sharks’ home fixture versus Bristol Bears in the Champions Cup round-of-16 as proof of Itoje’s idea that rugby needs to increase engagement outside of its usual markets.

“The main stakeholders in control of the game really do need to take this matter seriously,” said Itoje. “They need to see this as important.

“Even domestically there are questions we need to ask around the amount of time internationals are away from the club.

“We want to see the best players play for the majority of the time and at the moment there’s an exodus of players from their clubs for a large majority of the season.

“The clock is ticking but a lot of people are relatively comfortable with the status quo.

“The status quo is okay, it serves a purpose. We’ll still get exciting games, big play-off matches that get people interested, Twickenham will still be sold out, we’ll still feel excitement in and around the Six Nations.

“But the challenge is to look for something that is even greater.

“With anything in your life you need to be purposeful with your actions if you want to make meaningful change.”

READ MORE: Champions Cup: Leinster see off champions Toulouse to reach a sixth final

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