Maro Itoje has claimed that rugby in England must do better to break out from its traditional recruitment grounds and expand its horizons to include other areas of society away from the private schools. Rugby’s ethnicity has come under scrutiny in recent weeks following the race protests that broke out in the United States following the death of George Floyd during an arrest in Minneapolis. 

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Itoje, who is many peoples’ favourite to skipper the Lions on their 2021 tour to South Africa, now believes rugby must do more in black, Asian and minority ethnic communities in England if it truly wants to become an inclusive sport.    

Having played in the World Cup final last November, Itoje was encouraged by how the make-up of the England team has changed in recent times compared 2003, a final that he didn’t notice as a nine-year-old growing up in London as rugby wasn’t generally a topic of conversation among the wider public at the time. 

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Former England back row Neil Back reflects on the 2003 World Cup in the RugbyPass Rugby World Cup Memories documentary series

The English team 17 years ago had just a single non-white player, Jason Robinson, and while that situation had since improved, Itoje wants much more to done to evolve the sport even more in the years ahead. Speaking on the BBC Rugby Union Weekly podcast, the 25-year-old said: “In terms of reaching communities that rugby hasn’t reached before, it’s two-fold.

“Part of the reason why rugby hasn’t been able to do that is because they have a (private school) system and it seems to be going alright, they still produce quality players, they still produce a lot of successful teams. But you say rugby is an inclusive sport, the challenge is for it to be inclusive for all, not just inclusive for the people who fit the bill.

“What do I mean? The school you go to has a huge impact on the likelihood of success because what academies do is academies want to watch the best teams. If the best teams are private schools, the players from those private schools will then get put on the academy.

“That’s not to say it is impossible for people who go to state schools to make it. There are countless examples of individuals in state schools who can make it. But what the RFU and the PRL could do better is actually looking to include the whole of society, try and reduce the barriers of entry, try and take programmes out to these communities, programmes out to these schools who can’t maybe afford the funding or the coaching etc, etc to allow these kids who may not have experienced rugby the chance to see what rugby is all about. 

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“To be honest, if we are going to be balanced there is also a different side to the coin. A lot of these people, a lot of these communities – I’m talking about black communities, I’m talking about Asian communities within the UK – rugby is not really a thing in their minds. 

“If they are coming from the African continent, football is probably the sport they would be most associated with. If they are coming from Pakistan it would probably be cricket. What that means is that rugby to them is not a sport they are encouraging their children to go and play. It’s not a sport that they are having conversations with their children to go out and play. 

“Even myself, I didn’t know what rugby was up until I was 11. I remember when England won the World Cup in 2003, it was barely a footnote in my life, it wasn’t an important factor in my life at all. Rugby has a bit of a harder job to attract those type of communities because those communities don’t have a history of the game, but it is definitely something that can be changed.

“To be fair it is moving in a positive direction. If you look at the squad in 2019 for the final a third of the team came from different backgrounds, communities etc, etc. Obviously, I want to be clear that selection should always be based on merit. 

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“No one is looking for a hand-up or looking for an ethnicity selection. That’s not what we are saying, but what I am advocating for is for rugby to be more inclusive, be more integrated into the societies that it is not necessarily embedded in.”

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