The question is inevitable and Maro Itoje, to his credit, has the punchline ready. “I can assure you I’m not in the middle of a career transition and looking to take to the Old Vic stage,” he says, chuckling. What a letdown. When England’s head coach, Eddie Jones, revealed last year that he had sent his best forward away for acting lessons, surely a West End debut was only a matter of time?
It seems not. Instead Itoje is as committed to the day job as ever, with his Equity card still in the post. “I think there was a bit of miscommunication,” he continues, insisting the “communication classes” he attended with the team psychologist, Andrea Furst, and an external specialist fell some way short of an audition for Othello. “While I don’t think I was necessarily bad at communicating – I think I’m fairly articulate and can get a message across – there’s always room for growth. When the opportunity arose I said: ‘OK, let me take advantage of this resource that is available.’”
Tellingly Jones has also since retracted the words from the book passage in which he described Itoje as an unlikely future England captain because he was too “inward-looking”. It was a pretty harsh message for the only player in his squad who would be an automatic pick for a current World XV. If England prosper in the 2022 Six Nations, the Saracens lock will be a major reason why. So how is Itoje feeling now, physically and mentally? Fine, though a bout of Covid – “a bit of a cough, heavy chest and fatigue” – just before Christmas did slow him down temporarily.
Crucially he senses he and England are in a better place than last year when they finished fifth in the Six Nations. More relaxed Covid protocols this time, he argues, could help England more than anyone. “Hearing how other camps were run, our restrictions were fairly tight. I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of teamship and camaraderie. You only develop that by spending time with each other and perhaps that was a bit restricted.”
He is all too aware, nevertheless, that England will have to improve and build on the promise they displayed in the autumn. “You could probably pick apart aspects of our game this time last year that weren’t sharp enough. They’re all areas that Eddie has identified and has been trying to improve since. I like to think our attack is in a better place than it was. Obviously the team has been shaken up a bit and it was probably necessary. As players you just hope it’s not shaken up at your own expense.”
Deep down Itoje clearly still feels England have sufficient talent to beat anyone. “My expectation, as an England player, is that whenever we take the field against anyone we should win,” he says, speaking as part of his commitment as an ambassador for Vitality. “That’s not to say I don’t respect the other nations because they’re very good teams who have beaten us before. I have a lot of respect for them. But that’s the mindset I have. My expectation for England is always to be on the front foot.”
After 51 caps he is clearly keen to show that his competitive fires still rage. “Maybe the pandemic has highlighted this to me further but sometimes you can start taking things for granted or as a given. Most people in this world will not get the opportunities to do some of the things I’m doing. And these opportunities don’t come around too often. You have a duty to yourself, to give it your best shot. If you do that you can sleep easy at night.”
These are also pivotal times, he believes, for rugby generally. “The next 18 months are massive. The 2023 World Cup needs to be a landmark event and I think it will be. But in terms of the general marketing strategy of rugby at the moment I’m not sure it’s doing everything it needs to do to reach a wider audience. The broadcasters could package things in different ways, the clubs could be more engaging and reach out to different communities.
“I don’t feel it is something that will just happen with time. It is something that rugby needs to put a conscious effort towards because it isn’t the dominant sport in this country. Rugby is football’s little brother, reaching up to the table to try and grab some food. In order to do that you have to make a constant effort to do more. I might be wrong but I’m not sure if rugby is doing that.
“The trick is to pull fans into the game who aren’t necessarily already interested. Look at the impact of Drive to Survive. You don’t even need to be a Formula One fan to find that compelling. It’s about the human stories. Something like that would have a positive impact on how our game is seen.” Leading role or not, England’s star man is still eager to shine.
Maro Itoje is an ambassador for Vitality, the insurance and investments provider helping people to live healthy and active lives
This is an extract taken from the Guardian’s weekly rugby union email The Breakdown. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.