At a time when rugby is calling for bright minds and innovative, inspiring personalities to change the fortunes of the sport, Maro Itoje has good news about his plans for after the game.
The Saracen ban is only 27, but he’s already anticipating what’s in store for him once he retires. “I wanted to stay involved with rugby but I don’t want to be a coach or an expert,” he tells Sportsmail. “I’m interested in the leadership level of the game; help run a club – that sort of thing.’
It’s easy to imagine him being a shrewd, dynamic presence in boardrooms, helping to shake up rugby, which is desperate for new leaders to pull it out of the quagmire. But to put this part of his vision in context, Itoje has a lot more on his personal agenda.
“I’ll be involved with a few different ventures and want to continue with the philanthropic work,” he adds. “I will probably try to travel more and spend time in Nigeria and other African countries. And hopefully by then I’ll have a family too, so hopefully I’ll be able to spend some time with my family.
“You have to make hay when the sun is out, focus on rugby and devote your life to it as much as possible, but at the same time you have to prepare for what’s next. Although I haven’t worked it out exactly yet, I know which 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 who is content to just train, play and relax. He has a desire to be informed and aware.
“I’d like to know what’s going on,” he says. ‘I don’t want to live in ignorance.’ This comment was related to the game’s struggle with the Specter of concussion, but it applies to all aspects of Itoje’s life.
Tough issues are taken up by a player who already thinks like an administrator and businessman. Rugby is in financial turmoil and Itoje recognizes the depth of the crisis.
“It’s pretty worrying,” he says. “For two clubs, who knows what their future could be and if they will be here in two years. No one can categorically say one way or the other. This shows that the finances surrounding rugby are not as robust as they should be.
“Before Covid, most players thought if they signed a contract they would 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 improving commercial revenue around clubs. To put it egoistically, as players we take an enormous risk and of course we want to be well compensated for it. But the entire rugby industry needs to grow in order for it to become a sustainable sport. More needs to be done to reach a wider audience as most clubs are losing money. I don’t know if any clubs are making a profit now.
“Trading revenue needs to go up because there’s a risk that just one man, one owner, says he doesn’t want to accept a deficit of £4m, £5m, £8m – whatever it is – every year, then the entire rugby community in this place is going to collapse.’
The other huge cloud hanging over the landscape of oval balls is concussions – and serious health issues afflicting former players who are banding together to take legal action against gaming 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 advances made in this area of player protection to avoid the mistakes of the past.
“If you play this game, you put yourself at risk in every training session and in every game,” he says. “I like to be conscious and I don’t want to live in ignorance, but at the same time I don’t want it to dominate all my thoughts, otherwise I become timid.
“Gone are the days when walking off the pitch when your head was spinning was seen as a weakness. I’m very fortunate to be playing in that era because back in the early 2000’s, really into the 2010’s, there was this stigma attached to it. People said, “Ah, you just knocked, you’ll be fine next week”.
“Not only would you feel the inner pressure that you were okay, but your teammates would probably mock you or take the p**s out of you or call you soft — stuff like that. But the culture in and around concussion is miles away from that now.
“Moreover, the protocols are so much better now, probably as a result of these unfortunate cases we’ve heard about. Our generation of gamers is benefiting from the sins of the past regarding the culture surrounding concussions.’
There have also been profound changes on other fronts. Itoje has been a prominent voice on racial diversity and discrimination in sport and in society at large.
Shortly after England arrived in Australia, they learned of ex-Red Rose center Luther Burrell’s revelations about racism he had encountered at the game in an interview with The Mail on Sunday.
Itoje believes that there has been some progress, but it needs to go faster and further. “Rugby as a whole is doing well, but it could always do better,” he says. “There are sports that are more inclusive and there are things that could be done better.”
Pointing to the pitch at the Saracens’ redesigned StoneX Stadium, where the team trains, he adds: “Now look at this – a lot of players from different ethnicities and ancestry. That wasn’t the case when I arrived. When I arrived, I think I was the only black person of African heritage. It changes.
“It’s moving forward, but the challenge is how fast it’s going and there has to be a sense of urgency. It has to go faster and get wider.
“Rugby is inherently one of the most inclusive sports as it caters to all shapes and sizes, but there are still the old clichés associated with the game. It can do more to break into diverse communities. I think it will work.”