More coaches of colour is key to turning rugby into truly diverse game, insists Itoje
Maro Itoje tells Maggie Alphonsi of his responsibility to help knock down barriers faced by ethnic minorities trying to discover rugby
Maro Itoje hopes the next decade of his career will coincide with the emergence of more players, coaches and officials of colour across English rugby.
In an exclusive interview with Telegraph columnist and former England women’s international Maggie Alphonsi in which he discussed his Nigerian heritage at length, the 23-year-old Saracens and England star insisted that he has already seen marked change over his five years in professional sport.
Itoje pointed out that his club, the European champions, currently list six black or mixed-race players among their senior academy squad. However, he also stressed that the sport must not become “complacent”.
“I think rugby is traditionally an upper-class type of game,” said the Harrow-educated lock forward.
“If you look at where Premiership clubs are signing players from, it’s these top-end private schools. That sometimes means that the diamonds in the rough are not being acknowledged or given the opportunity. I don’t really have a definitive answer [to how more young ethnic minority players can be encouraged into the game] at this point in time, but I do feel as though there shouldn’t be any barriers to entry.
“If there is a barrier to entry or a prejudice to a group of people to even take up rugby, that’s something that needs to be eradicated.”
After acknowledging Harlequins’ Collin Osborne and Joe Shaw at his own club, Itoje suggested that diversification should extend to the technical and support staff of top-flight teams.
“If you’re talking about coaches, I think there is only one, potentially two in the Premiership,” he added.
“There is one at Quins, and we have a mixed-race coach at Saracens. Apart from that, there’s none – not even ‘not many’.”
Another objective for Itoje is “greater participation rates”. Gearing up for England’s autumn internationals, the British and Irish Lions star explained how he approaches his standing as a visible, successful sporting role model.
“I don’t try to be someone I’m not. I don’t try to pretend or be all ‘Black Power’. I think what I’m trying to say is that I hope all these things come out through the way I conduct myself.
“I do understand, especially for these kids, that I am a role model. Is there a little bit more pressure? I guess so, but it’s nothing too crazy.”
The last time I met Maro Itoje was during a corporate function after a Saracens home game a few seasons ago. I interviewed him in a room full of people and, embarrassingly, called him ‘Mario’ throughout. He was extremely polite, and did not correct me. But he has not forgotten.
“I got a lot of stick for that,” Itoje admits with a giggle as we shake hands in a box overlooking the artificial pitch at Allianz Park. It is hard to believe one of the most prominent players in English rugby, maybe even across the world, only turned 23 last Saturday. Itoje groans, saying he is “getting old” and stresses the birthday celebrations were “very low-key”. His parents, about whom we speak at length, bought him a gold necklace with a cross on it while they were on a cruise around the Greek islands.
I want to ask Itoje how he felt as a rare black figure in junior rugby and the perceptions his Nigerian-British family had of the sport. In light of the recent revelations made by Eni Aluko, I wonder if racial ‘banter’ has cropped up during his career and his views on it. For example, I know some teammates call him The Black Pearl. Lastly, what does Itoje believe the future holds for ethnic minorities in rugby?
Growing up in Edmonton, Greater London, I was introduced to rugby by my PE teacher, Liza Burgess. The chances of me finding it otherwise were very low. It turns out that Itoje’s starting point was not too different.
“I barely knew what the sport was until I was nine or 10,” he says. “I couldn’t even watch it. If it was on TV, I had zero interest. But at Salcombe Prep we had a headmaster called Floyd Steadman. He actually used to play at Saracens and mentioned I might be good at rugby. That was probably because I was a foot taller than everybody else in my class.
“I said I’d give it a go when I moved to secondary school, St George’s, so I did – and I was offside, I was committing almost every offence you can imagine. I was a second row from the start and it went from there.
“Harpenden was the local club. I joined when I was 12. The scrum-half of the team went to St George’s and his dad, Stuart Mitchell, badgered me for the whole of year seven to go down. I had a lot of fun there. I always laugh that back in those days you would play on a Saturday and a Sunday. You could never do that now.”
Itoje explains that his brother and cousins, including current Bath prop Beno Obano, all started out in rugby at a similar time. Boarding at St George’s, he also had a network of fellow British-Nigerians in his year. Harpenden, however, was – and still is – what Itoje calls “a predominantly white neighbourhood”.
As a junior, I remember I felt like I was always remembered because of my colour, but it was funny how spectators tiptoed around it when pointing me out. They would use every other trait to describe me: “That girl … the one … with the scrum cap.”
This clearly resonates with Itoje. He stresses he was welcomed warmly at Harpenden, but I ask whether he stuck in people’s minds in the same way.
“As ‘that black guy’?” he replies. “I don’t want to sound arrogant, but in junior club rugby you tend to remember the better players. I was up there with the better players in the team. I’d like to think they probably remembered me for that, and then even more because they were like: ‘Ah, he’s that black guy’.”
Itoje can rattle off the names of his early mentors in rugby. Mr Robins and Mr Bennett are two teachers he mentions. He tells me how Stuart Mitchell drove him “literally all over the country” as representative trials came up. He keeps in touch with most of them.
Outside rugby, Itoje has counted on the invaluable support of his family. “They have set a direction and setting certain behaviours and standards they expect of me … but also, for having a stable home. I think that has a big influence. You see a lot of kids who have troubles and sometimes part of the reason is because they don’t have a stable home. I’ve always had a balanced family life. That’s not to say there have never been issues, that’s how life is. But my parents set a very good environment for us to grow, to learn and have fun.” Hard work is a prerequisite for British-Nigerian families, who often encourage their kids into law, finance or medicine. My mother still wants me to be a doctor. One day I might work up the courage to break it to her that the ship has sailed. In all seriousness, though, she drummed into me how important it is to live by a strict set of principles. Itoje remembers that his father played bad cop, with his mother in the good-cop role. He says they are “quite chilled” these days – but never allowed him to skip his studies. “When I first started playing rugby, neither one of my parents saw it as a career. They saw it as something to do to have fun and make friends. As I grew older and was beginning to have major exams, my dad became a little worried that it was going to be a distraction.
“I think my dad wanted me to have a specific skill… for ages, he wanted me to be an accountant. Both my siblings are training to be lawyers now. What else did he want for me? A banker was up there. He always has these ideas. “I remember him telling me: ‘I’m happy for you to play rugby, as long as your grades don’t suffer’. I had to make sure they didn’t. If they had, he might have pulled me from playing. That wouldn’t have been great. I’ve been lucky enough to achieve both… so both parents are very happy now.” Without too many visible female rugby players of colour, my mother nudged me towards tennis. She saw Venus and Serena Williams as rolemodels “like me” that I could follow.
Itoje finds this funny. He asks whether my mother could think of any more beyond those two, but does pinpoint British-Nigerians Ugo Monye and Topsy Ojo as two members of the England squad he “had an affinity to and was drawn towards” as a talented teenager. Interestingly, Itoje has already seen changes over his relatively short time in professional rugby.
“At 16, Saracens threw me into first-team training for a day – I was running around like a headless chicken. There was one Caribbean guy, Noah Cato, but apart from that I don’t think there were any other black guys apart from the Pacific Islanders. Now, there are far more people from minority backgrounds in Saracens’ senior academy than previously. There are about four or five, which is balancing things out and showing that things are going in the right direction. Of course, we can’t be complacent.”
So, does Itoje, one of the standouts of this summer’s British and Irish Lions tour, try to set an example? Does he feel a weight of responsibility?
“I don’t try to be someone I’m not. I don’t try to pretend or be all ‘Black Power’. What I’m trying to say is that I hope that all these things come out through the way I conduct myself. I do understand, especially for these kids, that I am a role model. Is there a little bit more pressure? I guess so, but it’s nothing too crazy.”
Over recent months, a number of sinister incidents in the England Women’s football set-up, formerly managed by Mark Sampson, have been investigated and brought to light. I know from experience that it can be difficult to call out this kind of behaviour, especially if you have played along with it initially. “If people are crossing that line it’s out of order and it needs to be nipped in the bud,” Itoje says. “You have to be mindful of the people in your situation. What’s offensive to me might not be offensive to the next man.
“Obviously, if you’re making racial jokes, it might get to a point when it falls into the offensive category. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in good environments, both with Saracens and with England.
“I think often the case, which is in part due to ignorance, is that the perpetrator of the inappropriate
‘My dad told me he was happy for me to play as long as my grades were fine’
comments does not see it as offensive. That’s why you have to be mindful of the people in your environment. If you do make a comment and see that it has not gone down well, you need to stop and apologise for any offence caused.”
‘Shadow’ was one of my rugby nicknames, which was partly due to my defensive presence … but it was also taking the mick in reference to the character Shadow on the 1990s television show Gladiators. He was a big, black, muscly dude. It was meant in jest, and Itoje gives another loud laugh. Then he recalls the origins of his own nickname.
“Basically, it was my first year at Saracens at our Christmas social. And I love a turtle neck, me. I was wearing this pearly, cream turtle neck and one of the players came up to me and said: “Ah, Maro, you look so pearly today. Oh, The Pearl. The Black Pearl!’
“So, first people started calling me The Black Pearl, then it changed to The Pearl. It’s gone full circle again.”
Itoje does not think there is any harm here and feels no pressure to be funny, either in the Saracens changing room or with England. A healthy team environment, he believes, is about individuals “finding a little niche and fitting in”. But should more be done to accommodate ethnic minorities in the modern game generally? “Good question,” Itoje answers, taking a long pause to consider. “I think rugby is traditionally an upper-class game. If you look at where Premiership clubs are signing players from, it’s these top-end private schools.
“That sometimes means that the diamonds in the rough are not being acknowledged or given the opportunity. I don’t have a definitive answer at this point, but I do feel as though there shouldn’t be any barriers to entry. If there is a barrier to entry or a prejudice to a group of people to even take up rugby, that’s something that needs to be eradicated.”
Rugby could diversify further beyond its playing demographic. I would love to see more coaches and officials. Although Itoje will not be taking up refereeing, he agrees. “If you’re talking about coaches, I think there is only one, potentially two in the Premiership. There is one at Quins, Collin Osborne, and we have a mixed-race coach at Saracens [Joe Shaw]. Apart from that, there’s none – not even ‘not many’.”
By the time we reach the end of our conversation, I have long forgotten how old – well, young – Itoje is. He speaks with so much authority, and ends with his thoughts on how the game might look in 10 years’ time.
“I hope to see greater participation rates. I would love to see more people of colour in the game, and just for the barriers to entry that are present, for them to be knocked down and for it to be a level playing field judged purely on ability.”
Itoje heads into England’s autumn internationals in fine form. His rise in rugby is showing no signs of slowing. Intentionally or otherwise, he will be knocking down barriers, altering perceptions and levelling the playing field.
‘Players are coming from top-end private schools. That means the diamonds in the rough are overlooked’
Pioneers: Maggie Alphonsi with Maro Itoje (above), Itoje (right) and for England (below)
Sporting chance: Maro Itoje has hopes of seeing more players of colour in the game