“Keep the main thing the main thing” – Maro Itoje on 'celebrity lifestyle'

Maro Itoje will make his 50th appearance for England against Australia this weekend

Rugby made national headlines once more this week, but as per the norm, it wasn’t for the best of reasons. 

Eddie Jones’ comments in relation to Marcus Smith about GB tennis starlet Emma Raducanu and managing stardom caught plenty of people’s attention. Described as ‘uninformed and sexist’ in the national press, as well as from the likes of Gabby Logan and Jo Durie, Jones certainly didn't make any new friends.

What Jones had to say largely surrounded Raducanu’s actions since her maiden tournament win, where she has attended the Met Gala and featured on the front cover of Vogue. Between then and now, the 18-year-old has lost three matches and won just two.

England and Jones have since sent a letter to the teenager, clarifying what he meant and it seems somewhat ironic that the world class Maro Itoje was asked to face questions prior to his 50th England cap on Saturday afternoon.

Simply put, the 27-year-old has had his own brushes with stardom. In the past, the Saracens lock has previously spoken about having a relationship with boxer Anthony Joshua and in 2020 was signed by Jay-Z’s sports management company Roc Nation.

Recently a picture of Itoje and the music megastar was doing the rounds on social media, that rare sighting of a rugby player pushing through into the wider world a more than welcome sight.

Danny Cipriani’s younger years were blighted by the accusation that he was stepping into the spotlight too heavily, his high-profile relationships and public incidents adding to this narrative greatly.

Regardless of his own brushes with stardom, Itoje says that in his belief being a rugby player is about little else than just that.

“It depends what you mean by celebrity,” he said. “I think if you keep the main thing the main thing, if the main thing is playing rugby and if you keep that at the forefront of your mind in your preparation and that is what you hold as important to you, then it is not a problem.

“If you consider other things as more important than rugby, then that is when it becomes an issue. But, if you keep the main thing the main thing and keep focus on what is important and don’t start to cut corners of X, Y and Z, I think you will be alright.”

The use of the phrase of ‘keep the main thing the main thing’ struck a chord. A quick Google search later, it was clear why. 

During the Six Nations campaign, Anthony Watson discussed how in his younger years he stopped chasing the celebrity lifestyle in order to focus more fully on rugby. It was on that day in mid-March the Bath wing disclosed the information that Kyle Sinckler had imparted upon him.

“There we times during that injury where I was off trying to media or marketing stuff and he was like: ‘You need to keep the main thing the main thing’,” Watson said.

“That hit home with me and made me realise that if I want to keep doing what I love, I need to make sure I keep the main thing the main thing and not the other way around.”

A constant conversation surrounds how rugby can reach new markets and grow. Mike Tindall, for example, has extended himself beyond sporting boundaries, but that is largely through his marriage to Zara Phillips and Jonny Wilkinson’s notoriety largely has to do with his heroics in 2003.

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Joe Marler is potentially the most recent current player to push into the national spotlight, having had a Sky documentary titled Big Boys Don’t Cry that was released earlier this year. These examples are minimal in comparison to the vast global appeal that rugby has on the world.

“Rugby as a sport is not the dominant sport in this country, and rugby is always looking to expand its reach, it’s fanbase, its customer base,” Itoje said.

“I think the way you do that is to tell stories. Telling stories about individuals, telling stories about clubs, even telling stories about coaches and staff.

“I think people connect with those stories and the more we can tell that story in a non-generic way, I think the more we will connect with a wider audience.”

England squad

England: Steward; Tuilagi, Slade, Farrell (c) May; Smith, Youngs; Genge, George, Sinckler, Itoje, Hill, Lawes, Underhill, Curry

Replacements: Blamire, Rodd, Stuart, Ewels, Dombrandt, Simmonds, Quirke, Malins