With the New Zealand national rugby union team popularly called the All Blacks on the verge of another series victory – this time against the might of the British and Irish Lions, it’s worth reflecting on just how good the All Blacks are compared to other sports teams.The All Blacks have only ever been beaten by six test nations, and they are the only international team to have a winning record against every nation they have played. They have won 428 of their 554 test matches – 77.26%. In the decade from 2000 to 2009, New Zealand won 100 tests (82% winning percentage). As of 24 June 2017, the All Blacks have won a record 47 consecutive tests at home.This level of success is not a fluke, a happenstance of good players coming through at the same time. The plan has been in place for 14 years, the project nurtured over that time, refined and amended along the way. Yet like the biblical David against Goliath story, one particular player – aptly nicknamed “The Pearl” – 22-year-old Maro Itoje might be the one to finally stop the All Blacks.
This weekend, Itoje will form part of the British and Irish Lions squad that will take on New Zealand’s All Blacks. After being named as breakthrough player of the year at the World Rugby awards, Super Maro’s rise has been meteoric and utterly captivating. Born in Camden, North London, after his parents Efe and Florence moved to Britain after marrying in Nigeria. The Saracens lock is a Grand Slam winner, European champion and has been outstanding on England’s tour of Australia. Over the course of the 2015/16 campaign, Itoje won the Premiership and European cup double with Saracens, the Premiership Young Player of the Year award and the European Player of the Year award. He also made his international debut, won every game he started for both club and country and was part of the first ever England side to whitewash Australia down under in June.
Itoje who is of Nigerian descent enjoyed a privileged education at the illustrious public school Harrow, thanks to a sports scholarship. There he showed prowess in a number of sports, from basketball to shot-put. “My parents ensured my education never suffered,” Itoje said in a recent interview. “It’s easy for teenagers to get over-excited playing sport. I come from a family where education is very important.” Itoje left school with straight-As and is now studying politics at the prestigious SOAS institution, around his rugby career. “I’m on the home straight of my degree now and my parents have been a big part of it,” he says. “I was taught a very Eurocentric type of politics and history, I got to 18 and I did not know much about the countries that I actually originated from. I thought that was wrong and should explore that.” And so Itoje headed to Lagos, Nigeria, where his new profession was met with incredulity. “They say, ‘what’s that? Rugby? You should play NFL, you will get paid more money.’ ”He said, “I definitely want to have a holiday home in Nigeria but north London will be me for the foreseeable future. I went to Nigeria last summer and might go again this summer. Nigeria and England haven’t played each other at football for years. I support both of them and want them both to do well. If they came together at the next World Cup, I’d probably support Nigeria to be honest”.
His dress sense, he says, is classic, unfussy, with a modern twist. Itoje favours plain, well-fitting T-shirts, pressed white oxford shirts and sharp black tailoring.
On his dinner guest, Itoje said “My dream dinner-party guests would be Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali and Jay-Jay Okocha. I haven’t seen Okocha in the flesh but I’ve watched all of his YouTube videos. If I could turn any moment from sporting history into a film I’d pick the Nigerian Olympic football team with Kanu and Okocha winning the gold medal in 1996. They had a good team back then. Alex Iwobi, Okocha’s nephew, is doing well and hopefully he keeps flying the flag”. His father Efe Itoje, once said: ‘I made it quite clear from a very early stage that if his grades dropped, the rugby stopped. ‘I told him he needed to make a decision. If he wanted to play rugby then fine, but if his grades dropped I’d declare war on him.’
He added: ‘He was always a very focused young man. He didn’t want to go partying like other teenagers. He was quite unusual in that respect. We instilled the need to be the best he can be and he’s certainly delivered on that front. He’s kept his promise. I’m so proud of him. He’s been blessed with natural talent and he’s a role model as well. The way he conducts himself is very important. He’s my role model now.’ Itoje himself has acknowledged the huge inspiration passed from his father and mother, who works as a business administrator. ‘For my family, education is highly important and as a result they ensured that my studies never diminished due to my sporting commitments,’ he said.
‘Not just me, but I think 99 per cent of kids would rather play football or rugby than do their homework. As I grew up I realised the importance of it.’ Unlike many leading sportsmen, Itoje is open about his wide breadth of hobbies, which also include enjoying cricket and even listening to gangster rap. He is also a devout Christian, thanking God for his call-up to the England national squad in January and once posting a picture of the New Testament on a social media account. Come Saturday, Itoje might be the deciding factor to stopping the all conquering All Blacks.
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