Excl: As rugby bosses meet to try to work out a future for the sport, Saracens’ England star warns ‘there’s an awful lot of room for improvement’
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Maro Itoje is on the Cote d’Azur to face Toulon in a clash between clubs who have been kings of Europe for six of the last nine years.
It might be the secondary Challenge Cup but this semi-final is a star-studded match-up – and it has Saracens’ England lock buzzing.
Itoje lives for the big occasion and reveals he is frustrated by the pace of progress in his sport and rugby’s failure to really build its profile.
“Rugby is very good at speaking to its own market, at preaching to the choir,” he said. “There’s an awful lot of room for improvement.”
He urges the sport to cast its net wider, to be more inclusive and diverse and to work harder to attract more talent.
He wants it to sharpen its act when it comes to marketing itself against other more media-savvy sports.
“There’s no way you can tell me Formula One is more exciting than rugby. It is not,” said Itoje. “Yet it’s definitely packaged better.
“We need to cross-connect and reach new territories. Engage with those outside the stereotypical rugby world. Be more imaginative. Test the waters.
“If rugby is able to do that you will see a growth in the sport, a growth in engagement, a growth in participation.
“If the status quo remains, we’ll get the same results. You can’t expect anything different.”
Rugby bosses might counter that the World Cup went to Japan last time and in 2031 will break new ground when it is staged in the United States.
Just this week key stakeholders are in talks to try to create a biennial north versus south Nations Championship aimed at bringing more meaning to the July and November Test windows.
But as things stand rugby’s two hemispheres are completely out of kilter and the major competitions for club and country, bar France’s Top 14, are ring-fenced.
The product is less than the sum of its parts and, in many respects, is stagnating. Last weekend neither Leicester nor Racing 92 could fill their grounds for huge Champions Cup quarter-finals.
“The main stakeholders in control of the game really do need to take this matter seriously,” said Itoje. “They need to see this as important.
“Even domestically there are questions we need to ask around the amount of time internationals are away from the club.
“We want to see the best players play for the majority of the time and at the moment there’s an exodus of players from their clubs for a large majority of the season.”
Itoje added: “The clock is ticking but a lot of people are relatively comfortable with the status quo.
“The status quo is okay, it serves a purpose. We’ll still get exciting games, big play-off matches that get people interested, Twickenham will still be sold out, we’ll still feel excitement in and around the Six Nations.
“But the challenge is to look for something that is even greater.
“With anything in your life you need to be purposeful with your actions if you want to make meaningful change.”
Saracens: Goode; Malins, Daly, Tompkins, Segun; Farrell (capt), Davies; M Vunipola, George, Koch, Itoje, Isiekwe, McFarland, Earl, B Vunipola.
Replacements: Pifeleti, Mawi, Wainwright, Hunter-Hill, Christie, van Zyl, Taylor, Lozowski.
Toulon: Luc; Wainiqolo, Smaili, Paiai’aua, Villiere; Carebonel, Serin; Gros, Tolofua, Gigashvili, Etzebeth, Alainu’uese, Du Preez, Ollivon, Parisse
Replacements: Etrillard, Devaux, Setiano, Lakafia, Isa, Rebbadj, Belleau, Blanc.