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Maro Itoje on a mission to expand rugby to the United States

Posted on Sep 15, 2017

Maro Itoje sauntered up the steps leading to the Philadelphia Museum of Art - the steps commonly referred to as the “Rocky Steps” due to their starring role in the films chronicling the fictitious boxer portrayed by one of the city’s most famous sons, Sylvester Stallone.

The Saracens lock had good reason for not running, as many visitors do. “I don’t like to waste too much energy,” he said, with a smile.

That energy will be needed for tomorrow’s Premiership fixture against Newcastle Falcons in the Talen Energy Stadium, usually home to Major League Soccer side Philadelphia Union, as Saracens look to bounce back after last weekend’s defeat to Bath.

Yet, a trip inside the museum at the top of the “Rocky Steps” may have piqued Itoje’s interest, as it is with enthusiasm that he speaks of a jaunt around the city’s historic quarter, including Independence Hall where the United States Declaration of Independence was signed and a solo visit to the African American Museum.

From listening to the 22-year old - who recently completed a BA in politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies - speak of his visit to the museum, it is apparent that he can see beyond the bubble of professional rugby.

“It has the history, starting from slavery, to the abolition, to the civil rights movement. Philadelphia was one of the hot beds for the abolition movement. I don’t remember the specific date but for a long period of time, Philadelphia had the highest amount of freed African American slaves. From what I gather, this is a city that is close to the hearts of African Americans.”

Organisers are hoping that regardless of who comes out on top in Philadelphia, the winner will be rugby.

Itoje says: “There are a number of reasons behind us coming to America. Obviously the main one is to grow the game globally. America is the largest economy in the world so from a financial point of view it makes sense for the powers that be to get on this market.”

If the United States - often regarded as rugby’s sleeping giant - is to be stirred, it could be that it will take players who can transcend the sport to help make that wake-up call.

When asked about his interest in American sport, Itoje points out basketball superstar LeBron James as an athlete whose career he has followed.

James has transcended his sport and become a cultural icon due to embracing varied interests beyond sport from political campaigning for Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton to being the first black man to appear on the cover of Vogue.

As a sports fan Itoje has a deep understanding of what gives athletes broader appeal and speaks of those who look beyond their sport.

“The sportsmen I am more drawn to are the ones who are not only incredible athletes, at the top of their game, but the ones who have something more to them than just the sports they play. So, those who have either characters or personalities who go beyond their sport, not just guys with big mouths who like to talk a lot, but guys who there’s more to them than just the sport they play.”

Returning to the reason of why the fixture is taking place Stateside, Itoje speaks eloquently and with understanding of the mission.

“This is not their natural sport here. From talking to people, you notice that they’re very interested and very receptive of rugby. They all think we’re crazy because we don’t have pads but I tell them we’ll be OK.

“Rugby’s growing and it’s been growing at an exponential rate since it turned professional. In terms of the power, the pace, the skill but also in terms of the team behind the team. The corporate team behind the organisations. As time goes by, rugby will naturally grow to become a bigger sport globally.”

Could Itoje become one of the first truly global faces of rugby? That journey could begin in Philadelphia this weekend.

Maro Itoje is an ambassador for BT Sport. BT Sport is where the best in sport go to head-to-head. Watch Newcastle Falcons v Saracens live from Philadelphia on Saturday 16th September on BT Sport 3 from 9pm. For more info go to bt.com/sport

By Kate Rowan, in Philadelphia

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/rugby-union/2017/09/15/maro-itoje-mission-expand-rugby-united-states/

 


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