Maro Itoje

23 May 2022

Photography Lauren Luxenberg
Fashion Bethany Ferns
Interview Hilda Kosunen
Grooming Nadia Altinbas
Fashion Assistant Sophie Milham
Photography Assistant Perry Gibson

You’ll doubtless know Maro Itoje as a quintessential part of Saracens Rugby club and England’s national team, but what you might not know is that the 6’5 blindside flanker is also a passionate purveyor of African Art, a patron of multiple charities, an ideologically engaged business graduate, and proud fish tank owner. It is a spring afternoon in London, where the excitement of summer is palpable, yet still feels distant. We meet Maro at One Hundred, just around the corner from the dynamic Shoreditch High Street.

Shaping his own path, for the British-Nigerian rugby player, life is about the intricacies of experiences we live and the soul’s purpose: “In life, you are a product of the events that unfold in your life - so every event, good or bad, shapes you and the person you are”. The sense of achievement, thus drifting and unmeasurable, is crucial for each day, cemented in everything Maro does.

Treasuring every in-between, Lauren Luxenberg captures the shifting shapes of vibrant East London, as we travel from location to location during our day with Maro - each telling a distinct story, simultaneously immortalising a piece of today’s history for tomorrow’s spectators. A thread of electric hues in stylist Bethany Ferns’ hands paints unexpected patterns against the fortuitous canvas of the city.

Maro’s passion and devotion to subjects he believes in reciprocates enthusiasm. Perhaps it is his ever-expanding, curious mind in the world around him, perhaps it is his boundless determination. Through the conversation detailed below, you are reminded that though the world might feel monumental at times - even discouraging - in small doses, it is the most beautiful you’ll ever find.

Let's start with the essentials, who is Maro off the rugby pitch?
I'm far more calm. When I'm playing, I'm reasonably aggressive and confrontational but off the field, I'm a lot more measured, calm and collected. Just chilled.

You have already gained four English Premiership titles with Saracens, three European Rugby Champions Cup titles and three Six Nations Championship titles, but what is your proudest moment personally?
Outside of the field? Wow, I don't even know how to answer that question. I always find everything connected so it's hard for me to pick one thing higher than the other. Obviously, my degree at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) was really cool and hosting my first art exhibition, but all things like this as well - doing front covers and good experiences. And of course, the charity work that I've done that has had an impact on other people's lives. It's hard to measure or quantify the achievement in these things as they are all so different.

What makes you happy?
I think a lot of things make me happy. Family and friends make me happy. Rugby makes me happy. I love the competition, the sense of purpose, and the striving to achieve something. Achieving things and getting better. Also more simple things - I have a fish pond and I love watching them grow.

Have you named any of them?
I had a sturgeon, the fish that creates caviar. Unfortunately, it died but I named that one Naomi because it was tall, black, and beautiful.

Is there anybody that you look up to in your personal life?
I've loads of role models. Going back a bit, in school some of my role models were Muhammad Ali, Magic Johnson, but also wider like Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of Uganda. He is someone that I look up to a lot. In the 50s and 60s, he spoke about self-determination and he was the substitute for the nomination for the Ugandan people and their rights.

What drives you forward?
I guess the rugby part is easy because I love competition and winning. I love succeeding and all those types of things so that is fun and relatively simple. But I like the idea of being a multifaceted human being and having many streams to my boat. So I guess that's why I like doing different things and achieving different things. I want to have a positive impact on the people around me and the people that I come into contact with. And that all leads to the inner drive.

What drew you to rugby in the first place?
I started playing rugby when I was 11 years old, which is relatively late. My older brother is a year ahead of me, and he was playing rugby at the school that he was attending and I followed him there. I just said, ‘alright I want to play rugby there’. Other people were also telling me to play as I was quite big as a child. I used it as a way to make friends and social connections to find my place at a new school. I loved it since day dot. It's been an amazing journey and an amazing ride. The game has done so much for me as a person and for my family as well. Rugby has given me so much more than I could ever give it.

Have you ever been nervous before a match?
Every game I play.

How do you prepare for a game? Do you have a specific routine?
I don't have any superstitions - I prepare in terms of getting my knowledge and details right. But I don't worry about putting myself through some kind of weird routine. I just try and make myself as well as I can physically or mentally throughout the week. When it comes to the game I just repent.

How does the feeling of a community come across in rugby?
Rugby is a game where you have 15 guys on the team and they're all very different athletes. From 1 to 15 everyone has a different role with different body shapes and different requirements. It's almost the ultimate team game. I play in the same team as someone who is five foot seven, and probably 70 or 80 kilos which are very different in terms of my makeup, but I need him and he needs me so the atmosphere is around gravity and we need everyone to be successful. The team does their best when it is an environment where the culture creates community. With teams, whether it's sport, business, or the arts, the closer you are as a team the better results you get. You get to have conversations with people, dig deeper, and be able to solve problems like that - and that's the same for rugby. Rugby really is the most welcoming and vibrant sport out there. It doesn't matter what your body type is - we have big hefty guys, tall guys that sprint forwards and backwards, and the front row tends to be the shorter and wider guys. The second row's flankers tend to be a little bit taller and the back row is a bit of a mixture of both and is much more athletic.

You belong to the new generation of activist athletes using a public platform to build a wider discussion around issues on race, class, gender, and education as well as sport itself. Why do you think it is important to speak up?
I feel it's very much individual and one shouldn't be compelled to do anything they don't want to do. But if you feel compelled to build it, it's right to say something about things that you feel are important and use the voice you have to elicit change in a way that you think is beneficial for society.

What have you learnt from your discussions?
I am always learning. Life is full of lessons, whether it's what I have seen on the social wall, what I've read or watched or when I listen to other people, you're always, always learning.

Have you ever had any backlash?
When you play sport there are always incidents where people are unhappy with the opposition, teams, or fans might be unhappy with X, Y, and Z so there's always an element of backlash.

Are you able to separate yourself from that criticism?
My viewpoint is that there are things that are rough at times, but the same game has given me loads of positive things, although it also comes with situations which are less desirable. Whenever anything like that comes or happens, it's important to focus on the task at hand and what you want to achieve in terms of your goals and what you think is important or whose advice you value in your circle.

Rugby is a game of high-speed collisions and immense physical power, but what do you value in other people? What is truly powerful?
Wow. I think there are loads of things that are powerful or to be admired. There's nothing too crazy but honesty, transparency, courage, bravery, and standing up for what you think is right. Passion, a strong sense of belief, confidence - all these things in any individual whether it's in sport or not.

As a professional player, the game is your life and your life is the game - when the season is on, you have to dedicate yourself to it completely. Do you ever feel like you are losing yourself off the pitch?
You lose some social time and some things that you would probably otherwise do in terms of events: weddings, friends, family, etc., but you have to take the rough with the smooth because the sport also gives me so much so I can't really be too upset. At the end of the day, it's a choice, no one is holding a gun to my head and forcing me to play. If I really wanted to, I could retire tomorrow. It's about taking perspective of what you do.

What keeps you grounded?
My life hasn't actually changed that much from how it was 10 years ago, to be honest. I live in a similar part of London, my friends are the same by and large, and I play for the same club. Obviously, things have developed and gotten better from a certain point of view but I believe there's still so much work to do. I think the moment you start to get ahead of yourself or think of something that you're not you start to decline. I just want to keep moving, keep progressing all the time.

You are also passionate about art. What does art mean to you personally?
In particular I am passionate about African art. In 2015, I was designing my first apartment and wanted to put some African art pieces on the walls and was looking around and I couldn't really find any. When I told my mum I was looking for art and asked if she had any suggestions, she said that once we go to Nigeria, we will go to the art market to find some. Eventually, when I went to the market I was taken aback by the vibrancy of the colours, dynamism of the paintings, how much realness and life was in them, and it awakened something in me that was probably always there, but how art really speaks to my soul. Ever since then I've just been a bit of a fanatic.

How does art make you feel?
The good thing about art is that it's very subjective in how we respond to the same piece of art. My response to it will be different to yours. It's very much dependent on the eye in question. However, African art particularly, and why I like it so much, is that I feel it speaks to my soul and I feel to have a real connection to it.

Going back to sports, many people might not realise that for a lot of athletes, their lives are full of insecurities, sensitivities, and the fear of failure since they can be in constant competition with themselves. These vulnerabilities can be hidden by the toughness associated with sports as well as the masculine misbelief that men are not vulnerable. What is your experience of toughness and vulnerability?
There has been a massive shift over my time playing properly, especially as rugby might be seen as a macho sport. Over the last nine or so years that I've been a professional, there's been a shift to being more open with one another. I think that's mirrored by how society has moved with things like mental health being opened up and speaking about issues instead of bottling up. I think rugby definitely has had that goal of being tough guys but that is now moving towards a more open move where it's encouraged to be vulnerable. It goes back to what I said earlier, the closer I am to my teammate, the safer he's going to feel and the harder he's going to work for the whole team.

Especially for young players out there, you might sometimes feel quite alone with these themes.
I think the movement towards being more open is good because when the note is shared by every part, it makes it easier for everyone involved.

What encouragement or support would you give to young people that might be struggling with these themes?
Try and meet someone that you trust. Speak to someone who has your best interest at heart. Whatever issue you're dealing with, share it, don't bottle it up. Express it to someone and hopefully, that will help you work through whatever issues you may have.

Is there anything you would say to yourself when you were 11, just starting the sport?
I wouldn't say anything and the reason for that is that I feel in life you are a product of the events that unfold in your life - so every event good or bad shapes you and the person I am today is because of those events. Fortunately, I haven't had any major bad mistakes that I would totally say don't do. Life is about making mistakes and learning from them rather than worrying about making them. So, I wouldn't tell my younger self anything. Just live and learn from everything that's going to happen.

You grew up in London, but your roots are in Nigeria. Have you ever had a hard time finding your identity or your place in the world?
I was born and raised in London, and both my parents were raised and born in Nigeria so it's kind of that type of thing where I am British but I am also Nigerian. I never felt I'm misplaced in London because London is my city and I think it is one of the best cities on the planet. There're not many other places where I'd rather be. I absolutely love London and the variety here. I love to go from Shoreditch to Camden to Hyde Park to Ladbroke Grove and they all have totally different vibes, content, and atmosphere.

It truly is hundreds of cities in one! My last question is the big one - what’s the dream after rugby?
After rugby it'll be a good opportunity to pursue my other passions. I am interested in business and hopefully start a successful business in the future. I am interested in art and I'd love to travel and know a bit more about the world. But above all I want to continue to grow and to expand.

220503000000020001 v2
220503000000040018 v2

Above left: Coat by Lanvin, Shirt by Valentino at Flannels and Necklace by Chained and Able
Above right: Full look by Casablanca at Flannels and Necklace by Chained and Able

220503000000040012 v2
220503000000020004 v2

Above left: Same as before
Above right: Coat by Lanvin, Shirt by Valentino at Flannels, Necklace by Chained and Able, Trousers by Lanvin and Shoes by Dr. Martens

220503000000030008 v2
220503000000040013 v2
220503000000010009 v2
220503000000030009 v2

Above left: Jumper by Kenzo, Trousers by Daily Paper and Necklace by Chained and Able
Above right: Same as before

220503000000030001 v2
220503000000040005 v2

Above: Full look by Burberry

220503000000040007 v2
220503000000030003 v2
Follow us on Instagram @boysbygirls