‘Education, education, education.’ At the time when Tony Blair was repeating this phrase after Labour’s victory in 1997, a Nigerian special needs teacher living in north London named Efe Itoje was drumming that same lesson into his young son. The boy was superb at football, rugby and athletics but his father insisted he focus just as hard on his studies. Or, as he later put it: ‘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 ended up at Harrow and when the rugby scouts came knocking, the Itojes insisted that a university education was the minimum required downpayment. When he began his career with Saracens, aged 18, Maro Itoje simultaneously studied for a degree in politics at SOAS.
England’s success in Japan has led to plenty of interest in Oghenemaro Miles ‘Maro’ Itoje. I was an undergraduate at the same university as several members of his family in Ibadan a sleepy town in South West Nigeria, and I can tell you that this drive runs in the family. All the Itojes are suckers for learning. Efe was a big man like his son, though not quite as tall. He had the build of a heavyweight boxer but I don’t remember him ever getting into a fight. He was humble and still is. The family are all Christians and not ashamed to talk about it. ‘Everything I’ve been given and the position I am in,’ Maro Itoje once said, ‘is a result of God. He can take it away. But, fortunately, He has given it to me.’
After reading all the flattering coverage of his son, I decided to call Efe for a long overdue catch-up. He is in Japan giving his son moral support, but he refused be drawn on the subject of Maro the hero. ‘Maro is part of a team. I do not want anything that will mark him out as special to the other members of his team.’ he said. ‘All the focus here is on the finals on Saturday, and anything that will hamper the team spirit I am afraid is most unwelcome.’
Maro’s uncle, my former neighbour at my digs at Ibadan, allowed himself to be more ebullient. He told me that after last weekend’s demolition of the New Zealand team, his colleagues had formed a scrum around his desk and regaled him with highlights from the match. And, famished, when he eventually ventured to the canteen at work to have something to eat the lady at the till said to him: ‘This is on me.’
‘What’s most impressive about all of this is that none of it has got to his head,’ his uncle told me. ‘He remains the same thoughtful, respectful and caring person he has always been.’
Maro Itoje denies any future ambition in politics. But he’s nailed his colours to the mast on the big political debate of the day, Brexit (he supports the People’s Vote), and he’s a fan of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.
As most Nigerians here and abroad will know, not since the golden age of Ewuare the Great (1440-1473), the indomitable king of the Benin Empire, has the world had the pleasure of seeing an Edo man (Maro’s heritage) taking centre-stage in the theatre of global influence. But to my mind, win or lose on Saturday, there is a sense of inevitability about where Maro Itoje is heading after his glittering career in sport.