Maro Itoje will lead England out in front of a packed Twickenham on his 50th cap this Saturday against Australia, an occasion that warrants a moment of reflection.
Itoje’s trophy cabinet is stacked, his list of achievements endless and ability as one of the world’s best second-rows undeniable.
So how did he end up here? The 27-year-old has opened up on his childhood and a peculiar early motivation in the sport he made his career.
Maro Itoje spoke about how knowing you received a tie for representative teams spurred him on to take rugby seriously as a youngster in the game
The lock forward is preparing for his 50th cap for England this weekend against Australia
Itjoe wrote in The Players’ Tribune about how his fixation with wanting to wear a special representative tie for being in a certain team sparked his interest.
He said: ‘I know it sounds silly, but the tie really did light a fire in me. I never got serious about rugby until I saw the ties.
‘In case you don’t know, rugby players at my school were allowed to wear representative honours ties. It’s essentially a piece of attire saying, Look who I’m playing for. Same as being on the A team, only you don’t have to communicate it. People look at the ties and go, “Ah. These guys are good”.
‘One day when I was 14, a group of students went away to play for the county team, and when they came back they were wearing these Hertfordshire county ties. I swear, my jaw dropped. My eyes popped out of my head. I was like, “Oh my goodness, that’s amazing. I want that tie”.’
Itoje was fast-tracked as a teenage talent within the Saracens academy, the club where he remains a dominant force.
But for some time, his parents did not fully grasp what a career as a rugby player might look like and it concerned them that he might follow a non-traditional path.
Itjoe was a man mountain from a young age and it was clear he showed great promise
Itoje, pictured here with his mother Florence, has opened up on his traditional upbringing
‘My parents, wow … where do I even start? He continued: ‘You have to know about them to really understand my trajectory. They were born in Nigeria, and even though we lived in London, once you stepped into our house you felt more like you were in Lagos. I’m talking about the culture, the customs, the quantities of food — I don’t know how many fridge-freezers my mum had.
‘Now, if there is one truth about Nigerian households, it is that they all have the same vision for their children. They want you to become a doctor, businessman, engineer or lawyer. They will still talk to you if you become a dentist.
‘The worst jobs you can go for are in art and music. I don’t think they consider sports to be a particularly stable profession either.
‘Especially not sports that are virtually unknown in Nigeria.’
Itjoe’s father was concerned rather than proud when first told that his son showed promise in the sport and his first thought was of worry that his grades would suffer.
On one occasion, Itoje used his father’s traditional beliefs to play a classic April Fool’s prank on him, and even roped in his mother to play her part.
Itoje’s parents did not fully appreciate what a career in rugby would mean when they were told he showed plenty of promise for the school team
He wrote a letter to his dad explaining that his main focus was rugby and that he had decided not to go to university.
‘My dad didn’t talk to me for three days,’ he explained.
‘He was so agitated. He called my mum in despair, but I had already told her to play along. He was like, “Have you seen what your son is doing?
‘She played her role superbly. She was like, “I know, he doesn’t want to go to uni. But what can we do? Can we force him? This is his decision.”
‘He was so embarrassed. He couldn’t sleep. He was pacing around the living room all like, “What am I going to do? What am I going to tell my friends?”’
Itoje’s parents are now his biggest supporters, following around the world to watch him do what he does best.
Itoje came through the ranks at Saracens before making it on the international stage
The goal for the marauding second rower is to win the World Cup with England
His 50th cap against Australia at the weekend will be another significant milestone but the ultimate ambition now is a World Cup win, especially after the heartache of losing in the 2019 final.
‘Not long ago the Lions tour was the biggest thing in the world for me. Now all roads lead to France 2023, and my ultimate goal of winning a World Cup for England.
‘The exciting story is the one that is yet to be written, right?
‘All of which means that I shouldn’t talk too much about getting to 50 caps. But let me just say that I am very proud of them.’