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'The last time I was in Nigeria, I saw a little boy with a Lions top on'

Maro Itoje is set to play a huge role for the Lions in what will be his second Test series.

Lions lock Maro Itoje in Cape Town.
Lions lock Maro Itoje in Cape Town.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE LAST TIME Maro Itoje was in Nigeria, his parents’ homeland, he got a bit of a rugby-related surprise.

“Rugby’s not really a thing in Nigeria,” explains the Lions lock as a starting point.

“But ironically, the last time I was there in 2018, as I was driving past I saw this little boy running on the road with a Lions training top on.

“I was like, ‘Where the hell did this boy get this from?’ I’m not too sure if he knows exactly what it is but at least the message is travelling!”

The Lions might yet have to win the minds and hearts of the Nigerian people but Itoje will have a few supporters from the West African country over the coming weeks as the tourists clash with the Springboks.

Itoje plans to head to Nigeria after the Lions tour to visit his relatives and already has a request to deal with.

“My uncle actually texted me the other day and he said I should bring him a black Lions jersey, he said he likes that one,” says Itoje with a smile.

Itoje’s mother and father, Efe and Florence, are also visiting Nigeria at the moment and will be watching the Lions series with pride. They have travelled the world supporting their son’s rugby career but restrictions in South Africa mean they can’t be there for this trip, Itoje’s second Lions tour.

“My parents, my family, we grew up with rugby not really being a factor within our household and now my parents travel the globe, Covid-permitting, watching me play rugby,” says Itoje.

“My dad might watch more rugby than me, he loves it! It is a shame they can’t be here, they will be watching all the games from Nigeria.”

maro-itoje Itoje is on his second Lions tour. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Itoje has been speaking with them virtually on a regular basis as this Lions tour has built towards the Tests series, in which the Saracens second row will be a key man for Warren Gatland’s side.

He was only 22 on the last Lions tour in New Zealand, where he came into the starting XV for the second and third Tests after George Kruis had been preferred in the opener. Naturally enough, Itoje feels much better placed to make an impact in 2021.

“What I know is that this time around I am much more experienced,” he says. “First time around, it was a whole new experience for me – first time being a Lion, first time playing a Lions test series, first time being in the Lions environment.

“Now I am a much more rounded player and I think I have a better understanding of the game and I probably have a bit more of an understanding about how I can influence the team in a positive way.

“I have a responsibility to try, depending on selection, to help the team go forward and I have a responsibility to try and energise the team. I probably know much more about my responsibility than I did four years ago.”

Itoje is a certainty to start in the second row and is set to be alongside 35-year-old Alun Wyn Jones after his recovery from a shoulder injury.

“He looks like a 24-year-old,” says Itoje with a hearty laugh. “I don’t know what recovery method he is using but somehow his hair has grown back on the top of his head as well.

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“Whatever recovery method he is using, I need to get myself on. Luckily, my hair is on point! But he’s looking good.

“He is a man of a lot of experience, he is the tour captain and has that kind of presence about him. It is great to have him back, he was desperate to be back and desperate to do whatever he can to help make the tour successful.”

alun-wyn-jones-and-maro-itoje Itoje is set to partner Alun Wyn Jones in the second row. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

As well as offering his usual destructive presence around the pitch, Itoje is in line to call the Lions’ lineout this weekend against a Springboks pack that will offer a huge threat through Eben Etzebeth, Franco Mostert and Pieter-Steph du Toit.

“They put a lot of time and effort into their lineout and I know they put a lot of time and effort into their defence and they have got at least three very, very good jumpers who are all very, very able at getting in the air,” says Itoje.

“It just means that from our point of view, we have got to make sure we are really good at what we do and are really sharp. Every team, no matter how good they are defensively, will present some pictures.

“We will present some pictures to them and they will present some pictures for us to attack. It’s about having the clarity of mind to be able to assess those pictures or call respectively to those spaces.”

Asked if he has learned Afrikaans à la Paul O’Connell in a bid to pick off a few South African throws, Itoje departs with another big laugh.

“I can speak Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, and English – I think I’ll be all right.”

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Murray Kinsella

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