Maro Itoje says English rugby’s racism investigation should be a watershed moment for the game but has warned change will not occur overnight. The England forward says he has also been the victim of “below standard” remarks in the past but hopes the Rugby Football Union’s efforts to enhance diversity and inclusion in the sport will improve the situation.
This week a Rugby Football Union report, prompted by Luther Burrell’s allegations of racism while he was a Newcastle player in 2020, found examples of racism “in every area of elite rugby” in England. Itoje, who has spoken out previously on the subject of race and discrimination, believes it underlines the need to work even harder to ensure rugby is perceived as accessible for all.
“That’s not a great place to be, that’s not what we want in our sport,” said Itoje, when asked about the RFU report’s findings. “As always we need to be actively trying to be anti-racist and try to eradicate this from our sport, our game and our lives. I definitely hope we can continue to improve in this area, continue to make rugby a much more accessible sport and a much more comfortable sport for all players, regardless of skin colour or creed.
“I guess I’ve had a few experiences where things weren’t exactly what I’d have liked. I’ve never felt my skin colour has held me back in terms of selection, in terms of playing or how the coaches have perceived me. But I guess there have been occasions with individuals throughout my time that have been below standard.”
Itoje says that, in his experience, people do not necessarily appreciate the potential impact of their words. “Most people don’t realise what they are saying or doing is racist until you actually explain it to them. Often it’s after you have that conversation and they reflect on what they said … because racism is racism, regardless of the intent behind it.”
Itoje is now hopeful the Burrell case will provide another wake up call for all concerned. “History dictates there are incremental things that happen over time that bring about change. The more we can relate to someone and understand another person’s point of view, the better we will be in our understanding and hopefully solving this problem. There have been improvements but this is a further reminder that we need to continue to challenge this.”
Itoje, meanwhile, says he would ideally prefer to stay at Saracens after his current contract expires next year but is calling for more to be done to keep the top English players in the country. “In an ideal world I would love to spend the majority if not the rest of my career at Saracens. I want to stay in England, I want to keep playing my rugby in England. I think it’s good for the game to have a situation where the Premiership is thriving, English players are in England and the clubs have their English players. I think that’s a situation where all parties win.
“But unfortunately we have a situation at the moment where, for numerous reasons, there are a number of regulations and requirements that are making it more and more difficult for English players to stay in England. We’re seeing an unfortunate trend. I think we need to make it more attractive for the clubs to have English players. I think Premier Rugby needs to make it more attractive for the clubs to have English players. We need to find solutions to that problem. But all things being equal I would love to be at Saracens.”
Global rugby’s disciplinary framework is also under renewed scrutiny after Zach Mercer’s game-turning red card at Exeter on Sunday was rescinded by a disciplinary panel. Mercer was sent off for a dangerous tackle early in the second half of Montpellier’s last-16 Champions Cup defeat but an independent disciplinary committee decided the challenge did not warrant a sending off.