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

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - By Char­lie Mor­gan

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’

Sport­ing chance: Maro Itoje has hopes of see­ing more play­ers of colour in the game

Pi­o­neers: Mag­gie Alphonsi with Maro Itoje (above), Itoje (right) and for Eng­land (be­low)

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