Issue 02: Maro Itoje
This article is an excerpt from the Maro Itoje interview feature from Issue 02 of GAFFER: Heart & Soul. Available now from our online store now.
He says he always felt like he was destined for this, despite picking up a rugby ball six years later than a lot of his teammates and competitors. If he could choose a football player who would represent him on the pitch it would be former Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira. No question. A glance at his Instagram suggests that Maro Itoje is your ordinary tunnel-visioned, exceptionally talented, sole-focussed athlete. But a glance doesn’t give away a lot. Sir Clive Woodward has described his defensive ability as ‘devastating,’ current England coach Eddie Jones has touted him as a future England captain and one ESPN writer called Maro ‘a thinking man’s enforcer.’ Which is perhaps the smartest thing anyone has said about him – not because he is an aggressor, but because he is focussed, aware and responsible.
There is an air of invincibility around the 24-year-old. Part of it emanating from his stunning win-loss record and part of it coming from his unwavering understanding of who he is and what he stands for. At the tender age of 19 he made his senior debut for Saracens against Cardiff Blues. Three years later, he helped lead Saracens to their European Champions Cup title. He later picked up the European Player of the Season award. Aged 22 Itoje flew as the youngest touring British and Irish Lion to New Zealand. He appeared in all three tests and scored against the All Blacks. Beyond the pitch, he’s someone who often raises his head above the parapet to give his opinion on race, politics, religion; what’s right, what’s wrong and, most impressively, what he can do better to further his own growth and understanding.
So, who better to explain what it really means to find the heart and desire to succeed? Who better, on the dawn of another Rugby World Cup, to ask about what it means to represent your country? Who better to talk about the importance of standing up for what you believe in?
In sport and in life one of my biggest inspirations is Muhammed Ali. Not because of his incredible sporting career but more so because of him as a person. The things he stood for, his values and his rhetoric about black empowerment align closely with myself. I remember first hearing about him when me and my brother were in the back seat of the car and my Dad was telling us all about Ali – telling us all about his iconic fights; ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ and the ‘Thriller in Manilla’. Ever since, I’ve been a huge admirer. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned more and more about the man, what he stood for away from the ring and that’s what has made him an important figure in my life.
I think sport is one of those weird spaces where people think athletes should stay in their lane. When doctors give their opinions on things that aren’t linked to medicine people aren’t quick to shut them down; when teachers give their opinions on things that aren’t necessarily to do with education, people aren’t quick to shut them down either. I think, perhaps in sport more than any other profession, people have a stronger connection to it so they see you in a different light. As soon as you challenge one of their preconceived ideas about yourself or something that they believe in then they take it as a big offence. That was very evident in the way that last year one news anchor told Lebron James to ‘shut up and dribble’ and the fallout of Colin Kaepernick in the NFL too. He’s ultimately lost his living as a result of standing up for what he believes in. It’s a big, big shame. If you’re an athlete, you do have a voice. If you want to use that voice, or speak up about certain things, there should be nothing holding you back.
“My Dad sat me down when I was a little kid and said, ‘Maro, you’re going to be an Arsenal fan,’ and that was it. It’s been love ever since.”
I started playing rugby when I moved to secondary school in Harpenden. I was 11 – which is pretty late. The majority of the people who I was playing with at that time had been playing since ‘minis’ and tag rugby. When I came in, I had to learn so much so quickly. It was only a couple of years later when I first got scouted and I quickly moved up through the ranks.
Growing up I had a genetic advantage against most of my peers; I was tall, I was strong and relatively fast at the time. So, I had a good base to start from. However, there was a lot of other kids who had the same strengths. I’ve always had the desire to improve and the drive to work hard, to consistently work on my flaws and weaknesses to make myself the most rounded player that I can possibly be.
You need to have an honest reflection of yourself. There’s no need to feel precious about criticism especially from your coaches or your peers. You need to take it on board. I’ve always been reflective. It’s about knowing my strengths, knowing my weaknesses and knowing that I’m being honest about how I can be better. The steps I need to get better. The sacrifices I need to get better. That’s what it’s truly about; being honest about yourself and your career.
I’m at peace when all my family are well. When everyone is good, everyone is in a good place and enjoying themselves. That’s when I’m at peace. When I’m feeling the most ecstasy, then that’s got to be after you win a big game. It’s something hard to beat, the feeling after in the changing room, getting to share that moment with people that you genuinely care about. It’s a special moment. If you told me to give you the best examples of that, it would have to be the Second Test with The Lions in 2017 and our (Saracens) first European Cup Win in 2016.
Gareth Southgate came to speak to us (England Rugby Team) after they came back from the World Cup last summer. He spoke about the importance of ownership. The importance of the ‘team first’ mentality. Everything has to be about the team, doing things for the team. When it comes to the Rugby World Cup you need 35 players who are all pushing in the right direction, you can’t have anyone trying to take or sap anything away from the group. What Gareth and the team did was incredible. I’ve never seen the atmosphere in this country like it was last summer. It was unbelievable. They truly inspired us all – everyone. It just showed me the effect that sport can have on people and the morale of an entire country.
I feel that the unity and camaraderie in rugby is stronger. I think there is a stronger sense of connection. Not to say that it doesn’t happen in football but I feel because the game of rugby is so physical, it’s like you’re playing for each other. You’re literally putting your body on the line. I think that unity and team spirit could perhaps be seen in football a little bit more.
There’s a big fantasy football league at Saracens. I’ve taken myself out of that of late because I lose concentration. It’s a marathon. After a couple of weeks I forget about it a little bit and they have money riding on it – some big money – so I didn’t want to get used to losing that much. We do have some big football fans in Saracens and England camps, it’s something we all often talk about.
My Dad sat me down when I was a little kid and said, ‘Maro, you’re going to be an Arsenal fan,’ and that was it. It’s been love ever since. There’s been a lot of Arsenal heroes in that time. Jens Lehmann – the 2004/05 Lehmann in particular. He was very solid then. Henry and Vieira, of course. Kanu for his character. Plus, Pires for that left foot alone.
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