Harrow-educated, model and art collector: How Maro Itoje became rugby's unexpected superstar
If you want an illustration of just how much rugby players have changed in the 28 years or so since the game went professional, you should witness the scene I stumbled into on the fourth floor of the Savoy hotel. There, high up in a capacious suite overlooking a dreary Thames, stands the gargantuan, brooding figure of England and Saracens second row Maro Itoje. He is wearing an immaculate grey twill double-breasted Dior suit, and pulling effortless high-fashion poses for The Telegraph magazine.
Later he will change into a Gucci shirt, then more Dior, and have developed opinions on each. A solitary white pearl earring – Itoje’s nickname is ‘The Pearl’ – dangles from a barely cauliflowered left ear.
His hair is shaved clean on the sides and back, with a handful of artfully twisted dreadlocks swept back from the top. Other than a deeply suspicious island of facial fuzz sprouting on his granite chin like a patch of moss, there is no visible mark on his face – despite 62 caps for England and six for the British & Irish Lions, plus 150-odd Saracens appearances.
Huddled around a monitor, nodding and saying things like, ‘Yeah, Maro, that looks real nice,’ are Itoje’s publicist, his personal barber, a stylist, and his overcoated agent from Roc Nation, the entertainment agency founded by Jay-Z. The shoot will go on for another hour.
All this, despite Itoje returning to his north London home from Gloucester, where he and his Saracens teammates scraped a win the night before, at almost 2am. He came straight back: minimal post-match celebrations; no pub crawl; no impromptu meet-and-greet with Gloucestershire Constabulary…
Today is a rare Saturday off, but fashion shoots – along with collecting and exhibiting art, writing his MBA dissertation, sporadic forays into political activism and the odd advert – is what Itoje, 28, likes to do with his days off. As I say, the game’s changed.
‘Are you not… completely knackered?’ I ask, half hopefully, in a pause between shots.
He just smiles. ‘I am a bit. But not too bad, I feel pretty good.’
In truth, Itoje never looks remotely tired. The way he plays rugby, he says, ‘is a repeat efforts game, it’s the accumulation of a lot of actions over 80 minutes’ – meaning relentless tackling, carrying, lineout jumping, scrummaging, breakdown scrapping, yelling his head off (‘People say they don’t like it when I do that…’), general busybodying, and the occasional broken-field gallop.
Since his professional debut in 2013, Itoje has always stood out for his freakish energy. Few players in the world go about their business with as much industry (at his best, it’s as if there are three of him), yet despite the modern trend for seeing replacements – or ‘finishers’, as Eddie Jones rebranded them – as just as valuable as starting players, Itoje is almost always still on the pitch at full time.
Off the field his manner is the opposite: all slow movements, long silences, easy grins and a thorough way of speaking that results in full, essay-ish paragraphs with theses and conclusions.
‘Well, I guess I don’t need to run at people when I’m off the pitch,’ he says, dryly. It’s a good point. ‘Rugby is a confrontational game, it’s emotional, and it requires a certain mindset, especially the way I play rugby. If I was the way I am in rugby in everyday life, people would think I’m a weirdo. And it’d be incredibly tiring, mentally. So yeah, they’re different.’
After Itoje has crammed into an antique lift (a challenge for a 6ft 5in, 18-stone sequoia of a man) and been briefly puzzled by how a rotary telephone works, the shoot wraps up. He pauses to destroy a beef short rib and steamed vegetables from room service, and manages to entirely ignore the accompanying bowl of truffle mashed potato, to the outrage of the rest of the room. But that’s why he looks the way he looks, and we look the way we look.
He’s recently back from a concussion. A ‘mild’ one. It was in training, and meant a mandatory rest period, so stringent are the rules around head injuries now, especially since almost 200 former players – including England World Cup winner Steve Thompson, who has early onset dementia – launched a negligence lawsuit against the game’s authorities.
‘At the moment you’re a bit more cautious than you would have been five or six years ago, especially when you’re hearing stories of how people in previous generations are suffering,’ he says. ‘I feel sad for them, what they have to go through now, how it’s dramatically changed their lives and their families’ lives. It’s just incredibly sad.’
When he was at school, ‘if you got concussed and went off, it was seen as an act of weakness’ but that’s reversed now. A week after we meet, the RFU announces that the legal tackle height in non-elite rugby is to be lowered to below the waist – to the general outrage of professional players on social media. But some people want tackling banned entirely at school level.
‘I’m a bit uncomfortable with that. Rugby is rugby, unless you want to play a different form. I think the emphasis should be on teaching people how to tackle, with the correct technique. If you rule it out for teenagers, then when they become adults they’ve never done it. That arguably makes for a more dangerous senior game.’
At the top level, contact with the head is refereed fiercely. It’s meant that red cards, lots of them, occur in almost every game. ‘I guess the challenge is to try to get better. And that’s something, as players, we need to do, because a red card is extremely detrimental to your team.’
Not that he ever gets it wrong. ‘Nah, I don’t get reds,’ he says, shaking his head dramatically. ‘Touch wood.’ His agent scoffs. ‘What? I don’t!’
All being well, on Saturday February 4, Itoje will be packing down again in the opening round of the Six Nations, as England play Scotland for the Calcutta Cup at Twickenham. It’ll be the first on a clean slate for the national team, after the sudden, acrimonious sacking of Eddie Jones last month, nine months before the World Cup – a decision prompted by some woeful performances in the autumn internationals series. Itoje, who was handed his England debut under the Australian, heard the news like the rest of us.
‘I think I just saw it on the news. You could feel the mood change, especially in the newspapers. Kind of like how it felt when Boris Johnson or Liz Truss were coming to their end. It was that kind of shift.’
Jones is as popular with his supporters as he is detested by his critics, prone to absurd soundbites, a gift for achieving success but complete inability to sustain it… Johnson isn’t a bad comparison, actually.
Over the years, as Itoje broke through to become the most impressive forward England has produced since the Sir Clive Woodward era, Jones often included him in his press-baiting remarks. He wanted to turn Itoje ‘from a Vauxhall Viva into a BMW’, he said in 2016. He predicted he’d become the best player in the world, win a World Cup and become captain. He also said he was once experiencing ‘second season syndrome’, that in fact he was ‘too inward-looking’ to be captain, and that he’d sent him to acting classes to bring him out of his shell – something that Itoje later clarified was merely a communications workshop.
Itoje has spoken to him since, a call mostly to say thanks and good luck. ‘Well, I’m very grateful to him. He picked me 62 times. I don’t think he ever dropped me. So I’m grateful for the opportunities. He pushed me. He had his moments with me, but ultimately I’m grateful for what he’s done.’
So now they have a new boss, Steve Borthwick, the Rishi Sunak of rugby (but eight times the size), who used to be Jones’s deputy and is as straight, details-obsessed and a product of the RFU as Jones was brash, mercurial and an outsider. Last season he won the Premiership with Leicester Tigers at the first attempt, but now has less than a year to try to win the World Cup.
‘Things are going to change,’ Itoje says. ‘[Steve] will change the way we do things. And to be completely honest, we needed a change, because the last year wasn’t what we expected of ourselves. So change is good, it’s exciting. I’ve always said this team has an incredible amount of potential. It’s now about us figuring out how to make that a reality.’
Itoje had barely heard of rugby union when England won the World Cup in 2003. Born in London to Nigerian parents (his full name is Oghenemaro), he was the middle of three children, and most likely to be found in perpetual motion.
‘I was extremely hyper as a child, always told to be still. I was always the one that got sent on errands. Maybe they wanted to harness that energy, but my brother and sister were never sent.’
His father, Efe, ran a butcher’s shop but then moved into oil; his mother, Florence, is in property and, her son says, amateur mass catering. Which is helpful, given he now consumes up to 5,000 calories per day in pre-season.
‘It was a very vibrant Nigerian household, a lot of food. My mum has – wait – two fridge-freezers and a deep freezer. For just one house. So there’s always food, of all types. Anything you want.’
Unsurprisingly, Itoje grew, and was soon excelling at football, basketball and athletics. He’d later represent England youth teams at the latter. Rugby came into his life when he started at St George’s, a state boarding school in Hertfordshire, aged 11. He didn’t know what it was, or any of the rules. If only there was footage of that first training session…
‘I was constantly offside, passing forward… I think when I scored a try I just didn’t put the ball down? But it was good. A learning curve.’
Two years later he joined the Saracens, six years later he had a professional contract, and eight years later he captained the England Under-20s to the Junior World Cup.
He also earned a scholarship to Harrow for sixth form, where he achieved three As in politics, economics and statistics at A level, much to the delight of his parents, who were far more concerned with his grades (though they now watch more rugby than him).
‘But I knew someone there who got seven As! And we had the same 24 hours in the day…’ he says, laughing. A competitor. Harrow was ‘a great experience, a great school’, and fairly alien, given it required him to wear a top hat, bow tie and carry a cane as a prefect.
I have read that Efe threatened to ‘declare war’ on his son if sport distracted him from education. ‘Yeah, well he never said that to me… But he did say, “If the grades drop, the rugby stops,” so that was the threat. For Nigerians, education is just so important. They don’t play around with education.’
He did not play around. After initially being scolded by his father for choosing universities below his ability, he studied politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London at the same time as he was winning the first of his four Premiership titles with Saracens, three European Cup titles, three Six Nations titles, two Lions tours and one World Cup final.
‘I wanted to play for England, I wanted to be a Lion, I wanted to win trophies – all that by the end of my career. What I didn’t know was how quickly it would happen.’
Those ‘firsts’ – cap, title, Lions tour – are his career highlights. But if he had to pick one standout moment, it would be the second Lions test in Wellington in 2017, a victory in which he was the star. After the game, as the Itoje family celebrated together, the travelling support sang a song that’s followed him since: ‘Oh, Maro Itoje’, to the tune of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army.
‘That was a fairly special moment,’ he says, beaming and staring at the floor.
He is a curiously shy and low-key figure for somebody who has become one of the biggest and busiest brands in rugby. During his time with the Under-20s, he was in the habit of writing poems, and once made the mistake of letting a press manager give one to a journalist. From that day forth he was known as not just an exceptional talent, but a thoughtful one.
I bet he has regretted that. ‘Ha, many times…’ he says.
What’s more annoying, I ask, questions about being a poet or questions about when you’re going to be England captain? The smile turns wry. ‘I would say the latter.’
Still, if I was the first name on the team sheet for England and the Lions, had modelled for Ralph Lauren, appeared on the cover of Tatler with Lady Amelia Windsor wrapped around me, and was also famously brainy, I might just be insufferable. But there seems no excess of ego.
‘Nah, nah. The culture of rugby is very good at reining in egotistical people. If people get a sniff of you being too big for your boots, they let you know. I’m also fortunate with the family I have, and pretty much all the friends I’ve had since secondary school, who bring a balance to my life. That stuff helps.’
He goes out, but not much. Drinks, but barely. It’s all moderation. On New Year’s Eve, after beating Exeter Chiefs, an ITV presenter asked him if he was on a ‘big night’.
‘Nah, I’m going to church. Praise and worship tonight, praise and worship.’
He spent most of lockdown, when rugby was curtailed, exploring his many, many extracurricular interests. Art, education and politics in particular. He had a podcast, Pearl Conversations, in which he spoke to Alastair Campbell and former England footballer Eniola Aluko, and in 2021 he co-curated a London art show called A History Untold.
He also supported a campaign to distribute spare computers to underprivileged students. The education secretary at the time, Gavin Williamson, held a Zoom call with him, and then gave an interview thanking Marcus Rashford.
‘Due to recent speculation I thought it was necessary to confirm that I am not Marcus Rashford,’ Itoje tweeted. He was accepting of the error, preferring instead to use his platform to educate people about black history, as well as highlight the casual racism in society.
A couple of years ago, he spoke about being mistaken for a worker in Waitrose – by another member of staff. It was ‘ludicrous’, he said, ‘but it highlights some of the biases people have’.
Generally, whenever an athlete finds success young and then capitalises on interest from brands by accepting offers to do glossy ads or social events (or worse, to have an opinion), you can count on the fact that as soon as they lose, the pitchforks will come out, for they are clearly ‘distracted’. Just ask Rashford. Or Emma Raducanu.
But Itoje has escaped this fate. It helps that he somehow never plays less than very well, and is probably worth every penny of the salary that makes him one of the highest-paid players in the world (closing in on £1 million per season). But according to his agent, who admittedly would say this, he is also always first to training, last to leave, and is firm with his team about never missing a second of the day job to nourish his other interests. Without rugby, there is no brand Maro.
‘All athletes are a business, to a certain degree, and they have the power to improve their business through better performance, or worsen their business through poor performance,’ says Itoje. He would like rugby, particularly at club level, to have a far bigger profile. ‘It serves everyone. Rugby in the last six months has been on the floor, for a lot of reasons – Worcester almost going into the abyss; Wasps, a similar situation. England will always be fine, but the club game needs the sport to grow, to have a bigger commercial revenue.’
— Maro Itoje (@maroitoje) October 8, 2021
It’s also trying to make greater individual stars of its players – or at least companies like Roc Nation are hoping to. It currently has a small group of rugby players on its books (technically, Itoje’s stablemates vary from South Africa captain Siya Kolisi to Rihanna and Christina Aguilera). How is Jay-Z’s rugby knowledge? ‘He’s learning, he’s learning… I know he’s definitely watched rugby games before.’
Itoje now has, by his estimation, seven good years of professional rugby left. He hopes that final chapter includes a World Cup winners’ medal and a Lions tour victory – the only things that have ever really eluded him. And then? Business? Art? Or… politics?
‘Who knows? Maybe in the long term. I find politics very interesting. The last year has been fascinating, how things have transpired, very choppy waters. But never say never.’
An exaggerated ‘wind-up’ signal appears in the corner of my eye. Itoje has to go. He gets up, slowly, and wanders back through to the suite’s main room. Another stylist has laid out what looks like 50 more items of designer clothing. Itoje and his team need to choose some ahead of a social this evening. He claps, smiles, and switches gear again.
‘Right, let’s do it!’