Maro Itoje: The double life of England rugby's 'Super Maro'

Story highlights

  • Itoje balances rugby with politics degree
  • 2016 European rugby player of the year
  • Also likes poetry, opera and art

(CNN)When Maro Itoje walks into a crowded university lecture room, nobody realizes they are in the presence of one of rugby's next superstars.

Despite his tall, muscular physique, Europe's player of the year goes largely unnoticed by his course mates at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he is studying for a politics degree.
"Unfortunately, my university experience is a little bit different to the standard student," the England powerhouse told CNN.
    "Honestly, I don't think many of them know who I am. Obviously I'm fairly discreet. I think some lecturers and tutors know, but generally I don't think they know me. It makes life a little bit easier."
    On and off the rugby field, the man known as "Super Maro" is different to most.
    At the age of just 22, he's already achieved more than most rugby players do in a lifetime. In his first year of international rugby, Itoje won a Six Nations grand slam with England and played every game in his country's historic unbeaten tour of Australia.
    The imposing 6-foot 5-inch, 116 kg (256-pound) second-row forward was also named breakthrough player of the year at the 2016 World Rugby awards.
    But quiet and understated in person -- sporting the distinctive short dreadlocks usually hidden under his protective headgear -- he brings a scholarly presence to rugby's locker rooms. As well as politics, Itoje's list of interests includes poetry, opera, and art.

    Education first

    When Itoje first took up rugby as a schoolboy, his parents -- Nigerian immigrants living in London -- didn't know what to expect. In their eyes, he was "just a little boy running round, burning some energy, blowing off some steam."
    "I don't think they ever thought I was going to be a professional athlete," he admits.
    But just a few years into his professional rugby career, Itoje has already amassed a bulging trophy cabinet.
    With his club side Saracens, he's won two Premiership titles, the European Champions Cup, and captained his team through a victorious LV= Cup campaign.
    In scooping up last year's European Player of the Year award, he overcame competition from the likes of rugby legends George Smith and Dan Carter.
    But whether a schoolboy or a global rugby star, Itoje's parents have never let him lose sight of his studies.
    "Generally for parents, especially Nigerian parents, your education comes first when you're growing up," he says. "That was definitely my story. My parents made sure that my academic endeavors never suffered from playing rugby and other sports.
    "My Dad's still on my back like he was 10 years ago. He's still making sure that I'm doing my work, both him and my mum. They're making sure that I'm going to university and doing the work I need to do to get my degree."
    For Itoje, the degree is a way to lead a balanced life. "It helps you keep your mind ticking over and gives you something else to think about," he says. "I find politics very interesting, and obviously it's an interesting time to be studying politics."
    Asked about Donald Trump, he says the recently-inaugurated President of the United States makes him "scratch my head a lot ... I think if I keep scratching I might go bald."

    International honors

    Global politics aside, Itoje will likely have other things on his mind this week.
    After several weeks out through a hand injury -- which meant missing the November international series -- he will return to launch England's Six Nations title defense.
    Now coached by Eddie Jones, England has experienced a dramatic turnaround after becoming the first host nation to fail to progress past the group stage of a World Cup in 2015.
    England has won 14 straight matches since that crushing defeat by the Wallabies -- 13 of them under Jones.
    Victory against France on Saturday would be a national record for consecutive wins -- and the team can beat New Zealand's all-time milestone by winning all five games in this tournament.
    Itoje is full of praise for the Australian, who's helped revolutionize English rugby since replacing Stuart Lancaster after the World Cup.
    "Eddie is a very intelligent guy. He's very successful at what he does. He's brilliant in getting the best out of all the team," he says.
    "I think for me he's been great, providing an environment where I can learn, test myself, and grow," adds Itoje, who will start in a new back-row role against France as blindside flanker.
    "He's very good at man management and understanding what makes certain players tick, and he's done that well so far."
    Itoje has risen through the ranks quickly. Just two years after graduating into the Saracens senior squad, he made his England debut as a 21-year-old. He is now one of rugby's most marketable athletes with several sponsors behind him, including Adidas and health insurance company Vitality.
    He has also been touted as the next Martin Johnson -- England's 2003 World Cup-winning captain who, like Itoje, wore the No. 4 jersey. But despite his rapid progress, Itoje is just focusing on the next game.
    "Whenever you play for England, from my experience and from speaking to some of the more experienced guys in the squad, there are no games that aren't pressure games," he says.
    "Every game is a big game. I feel that we're very good at just focusing on the next task."