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 post-playing plans.
The Saracens lock is only 27, but he is already working out what lies ahead after his retirement from active service. ‘I wanted to stay connected to rugby, but I don’t want to be a coach or a pundit,’ he tells Sportsmail. ‘I’m interested in the executive side of the game; helping to run a club — that type of thing.’
It is easy to imagine him being a smart, dynamic presence in boardrooms, and helping to galvanise rugby, which is desperate for new leaders to drag it out of the mire. But to put this part of his vision in context, Itoje has plenty more on his personal agenda.
‘I’m going to be involved in a few different businesses and I want to continue with philanthropic work,’ he adds. ‘I will probably look to travel more and spend time in Nigeria and other African countries. And hopefully I will have a family by then too, so hopefully I will be able to spend a bit of time with my family.
‘You have to make hay when the sun shines, focus on rugby and devote your life to it as much as possible, but at the same time you have to prepare for what is coming next. Whilst I don’t have it exactly worked out, 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 content to just train, play and relax. He has a desire to be informed and aware.
‘I like to know what is going on,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to live in ignorance.’ That comment was in the context of the game’s struggle with the spectre of concussion, but it applies to all aspects of Itoje’s life.
Thorny issues are grasped by a player who already thinks like an administrator and a businessman. Rugby is in financial turmoil and Itoje recognises the scale of the crisis.
‘It is quite worrying,’ he says. ‘For two clubs, who knows what their future might be and if they will be here in two years’ time. No one can categorically say one way or the other. That shows that the finances around rugby are not as robust as they should be.
‘Before Covid, most players thought that if they signed a contract, come hell or high water you’re going to get that money. Then Covid happened and player salaries were cut just like that.
‘We need to find a way to make the game more sustainable by making commercial revenue around the clubs better. Speaking selfishly, as a player, we put ourselves at enormous risk and obviously we want to be well compensated for doing that. But the whole industry of rugby needs to grow for it to be a sustainable sport. More has to be done to engage a wider audience, because most clubs lose money. I don’t know if any clubs make a profit now.
‘Commercial revenues need to increase because the risk that it just takes one man, one owner, to say that they don’t want to accept a deficit of £4million, £5m, £8m — whatever it is — every year, then the whole community of rugby in that place will collapse.’
The other giant cloud over the oval-ball landscape is concussion — and grave health problems afflicting former players who are joining forces to take legal action against the game’s authorities.
Itoje was forced to miss England’s series decider in Australia in July after a blow to the head in the second Test in Brisbane. It was his first such episode, but he is grateful for the progress which has been made in this area of player welfare, to avoid the mistakes of the past.
‘Playing this game, you put yourself at risk in every training session 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 where it was seen as a weakness to come off the field when your head is spinning. I’m very fortunate to be playing in this era because back in the early 2000s, up until the 2010s really, it had that stigma around it. People would say, “Ah, you’ve just had a knock, you’ll be fine next week”.
‘Not only would you feel internal pressure to be fine, but your team-mates would probably jeer you or take the p**s out of you or call you soft — stuff like that. But the culture in and around concussion now is miles apart from that.
‘On top of that, the protocols now, probably as a result of these unfortunate cases we’ve heard about, are so much better. Our generation of players are benefiting from the sins of the past in terms of the culture in and around concussion.’
There has been profound change on other fronts too. Itoje has been a prominent voice on racial diversity and discrimination within sport and wider society.
Soon after England arrived in Australia, they learned of revelations made by former Red Rose centre Luther Burrell about racism he had encountered in the game, in an interview with the The Mail on Sunday.
Itoje’s view is that there has been some progress, but there needs to be more, faster. ‘Rugby as a whole is doing okay on it, 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 squad are training, he adds: ‘Look out there now — lots of players with different ethnicities and heritages. That was not the case when I first came in. When I first came in, I think I was the only black guy with African heritage. That’s changing.
‘It is taking steps forward, but the challenge is how quickly it progresses and there has to be a sense of urgency. It needs to happen quicker and it needs to be wider.
‘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 that attach to the game. It can do more to break into different communities. I think it will succeed.’
Its prospects of success are enhanced by the emergence of a black icon who has become prominent 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 because of a minor shoulder injury, but he is always busy. Resting does not come naturally.
‘I struggle to switch off,’ he says. ‘I struggle to just sit and chill out. There’s a phrase in the Bible which I can’t remember exactly, but people normally say it when someone has died. “There’s a time for life, there’s a time to die, there’s a time to be joyous, there’s a time to be sad” — it kind of goes along like that and I feel that.’
As the son of Nigerian parents, Itoje is determined to connect with his African heritage. During the summer, he spent a week in Kenya with the Atlas Foundation to see first-hand the work they are doing there, in his role as a trustee of 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 really humbling experience. Even in the difficult situations that a lot of people in Africa face, they do find joy. You see the smiles on the kids’ faces.
‘I went to a nursey-primary school, and all these kids I’d never seen or met before came up to me and were holding my hands and hugging me, within minutes of meeting me.
‘The CEO of the Atlas Foundation, Boris, spoke about how a lot of the kids lack affection at home. So as soon as they meet someone remotely nice to them, they lap it up and take all the affection they can by being really tactile. It was so heart-warming 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 is continuing to explore his passion for African art and his studies have reached a critical stage, with a dissertation to tackle on family business succession.
His areas of interest are endless, but Itoje has a remarkable capacity to manage his time, to ensure rugby remains front and centre. A year from now, 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.
‘Whilst my head isn’t totally on it, it’s definitely in the back of my mind; to try to put myself in the right position for when that time comes. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so it’s about individually taking steps forward, so you are ready. As a player, if you’re lucky you get to play in four World Cups and that’s if you have a very, very long career. That’s not many bites of the cherry, so you have to make sure each one is as impactful as you can.’
More immediately, Itoje is enthused by the strategic revolution at Saracens, with a more expansive approach which was illustrated in the fightback victory at Harlequins last Saturday. ‘We are adding another dimension to our attack, rather than playing a mundane or a simpler game that is probably easier for teams to analyse,’ he says.
‘As you saw in the last game, it involves more risk, but if we can execute what we are doing, we believe that the risk element 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 eyes-up attacking team, rather than a going-through-the-motions-type team. It is more tiring, but it is fun too!’
Tiredness does not appear to be a major factor for Itoje. He is a multi-dimensional dynamo. There are many more playing years ahead of him but whenever he is done, his sport certainly could use some of his energy and vision in the boardroom.