Super Maro, the roaring lion of England rugby
His charismatic, muscle-bound presence will delight the fans packing into Japan’s Yokohama stadium when England go out to face South Africa. But while 6ft 5in Maro Itoje – “The Chosen One” to his teammates – may look like a rugby player straight from central casting, he is so much more complex, and interesting, than that. The younger son of Nigerian immigrant parents from north London, he describes himself as a liberal feminist. He went to Harrow public school on a scholarship. To focus and inspire himself, he likes to write poetry. And he also takes a keen interest in international politics.
The buzz of expectation around him is reaching fever pitch as the clock ticks down to the big match. But, as his proud brother Jeremy reveals in an exclusive interview, the chance of the 25-year-old, who plays lock in the second row of the pack, having his head turned by all the praise is zero.
In a call from Japan this week, Maro told his older brother: “There is still a job to be done. I’m not getting ahead of myself.”
Jeremy laughs: “That is so typical of him. He never, ever takes winning for granted. I know he’ll be spending all his time this week preparing and making sure he’s ready for the biggest game of his career.
“Maro is incredibly focused, disciplined and hard-working. He will be ready, you can be sure of that.
“He’ll have spent hours working out how to read the game and what needs to be done before the final whistle blows.”
When Maro’s not in the gym honing his rippling muscles, he’s often to be found with a pen or a book in his hand. For in his boyhood, Maro was bookish, a prodigious learner who seemed destined for a career in academia.
His Nigerian father Efe, 59, and mother Florence, 60, came to Britain to start a new life and initially ran a successful butcher’s shop in Cricklewood. But Efe later moved into the oil business, working as a consultant to BP, specialising in the oil rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria which he knows so well.
Florence with Jeremy, left, and Maro
From left, Maro, Florence, sister Isabel, Jeremy and Efe
Recalling their childhood in Mill Hill, Jeremy, 26, said: “Maro had a gift for learning. As a kid he always had a book in his hand. He just devoured books and could remember everything he’d read.
“For us it was obvious from an early age that he’d do well at school, so we were a bit surprised when we saw he was also good at sport.
“He had academic skills and sporting skills, which is quite unusual, but he always liked to be on the winning team, so sport has been the priority in the past few years.”
At Salcombe prep school in Southgate he did well enough to earn a place at St George’s mixed-sex day and boarding school in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, where he took the school motto, Levavi Oculos (Aim Higher) to his heart.
Fellow pupil Kash Oladiran, 24, said: “At school you could see his leadership qualities coming through, but he didn’t boast about his achievements. He watched and listened and always encouraged people to play as well as they could.
“Needless to say he was captain of the rugby team year after year. He has a friendly confidence about him, which made people in the school team feel confident. He was also brilliant at shot put, almost the best in the country, so his career could have gone either way – athletics or rugby.
“I think he ran 200 metres in 23 seconds or something ridiculous, just tremendous bursts of speed from a standing start.
Maro won a scholarship to Harrow public school
“When it came to GCSEs he was so methodical and organised. He planned his revision meticulously and because of that preparation he did very well. Owen Farrell (England’s rugby captain) was a few years ahead of him at the school but they knew other and got on well.
“Another England player, George Ford, was also a pupil there and a bit older than him. The fact they all know each other from an early age must help in the England team.”
Maro did so well he won a sixth-form scholarship to Harrow, where staff steered him academically while recognising a top‑flight rugby career was his for the taking.
Signing with Saracens Rugby Club was a natural progression. He played for England’s juniors, and five years ago was part of the team that beat South Africa to the under-20s World Cup title.
But he also found time to study for a degree in politics at London’s prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies.
Putting his studies on hold to concentrate on sport was never an option. His father has said: “I made it quite clear from a very early stage that if his grades dropped, the rugby stopped. I told him if he wanted to play rugby then fine, but if his grades dropped I’d declare war on him.”
This, it seems, is a family where failure is not an option.
“Whether it’s sport or studies Maro puts the work in,” says Jeremy, who has himself achieved a degree in international relations and politics. He applies the same determination to both, but he has a good sense of humour and loves his chill time at the cinema or just hanging out with his friends. For now he is concentrating on rugby but after that there are an awful lot of options.”
One of Maro’s big concerns is African economic development and how to stop nations from becoming overly dependent on foreign aid.
But for now there’s only one ambition to be fulfilled. Jeremy has just flown out to Japan to see the game and he’ll join up with parents, who have been there since the start of the tournament.
One of the player’s closest friends, Timi Ibikunle, 24, flew out from London with Maro’s sister, Isabel, last Wednesday to join the party.
Timi says: “Maro will be as excited as everyone else but he’ll keep all his emotions under control. We’ll be the ones on tenterhooks. Whatever the result he’ll be humble and modest, that’s just the way he is.
“We’ll all get together after the game, but he won’t take centre stage. He’ll just mix in and be Maro, funny and thoughtful, and he’ll have some clever observations.”
While he may be a reflective young man off the pitch, on the field of play, he can be a frightening opponent.
Maro cleans up in a lineout against the All Blacks
As a lock he has more than proved to be both powerful and fearless, creating exciting play from scrums while helping to stop the opposition in their attacking tracks.
Before the tournament, he said: “There’s always been an appeal to people fighting one another. It’s always something that’s got people excited and the physical aspect to rugby is no different.
“A lot of players get a great deal of satisfaction after they ‘smoke’ somebody, after they hit them hard. I completely put myself in that bracket.”
Such an honest observation may surprise supporters who have enjoyed Maro’s poetic offerings, which he insists should never be compared to William Wordsworth. His best work, There Comes a Time, is an indication of his intent, which the South African team would be advised to take on board. Here are some of his lines…
There comes a time
When a boy must become a man
When one must love and hope
When preparation turns to performance
When one must stand up and lead
When one must sit back and listen
There comes a time, when the time must be taken.
Come Saturday, all England will be hoping that Maro’s time has come.