Maro Itoje: England, Lions & Saracens forward would be 'proud' to be role model

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Saracens and England forward Maro Itoje on the Lions, his hero Muhammad Ali, and faith
European Champions Cup final - Clermont Auvergne v Saracens
Venue: Murrayfield Date: 13 May Kick-off: 17:00 BST
Coverage: Commentary on Radio 5 live and live text coverage on the BBC Sport website.

England forward Maro Itoje says he will be "proud" if he can be a role model for young black rugby players.

The 22-year-old faces Clermont Auvergne in Saturday's European Champions Cup final, as Saracens look to defend their title at Murrayfield.

Itoje, the youngest tourist with the British and Irish Lions this summer, says as a kid he looked up to former England wings Ugo Monye and Topsy Ojo.

"If I want to be honest, it's because they were black," said Itoje.

Speaking to 5 live's Rugby Union Weekly podcast, Itoje, who was was born in Camden to Nigerian parents, added: "They were the guys I looked up to and who I had a natural affinity to.

"You look around at the type of schools I went to, there are not many black guys playing rugby, or as many black guys when you watch Premiership and international games - though it is changing a little bit now.

"You see before games at Allianz Park these mini rugby festivals, I tend to look around and see who is playing and there are a lot more BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] kids about. So it's good, and it is definitely improving."

In a wide-ranging interview, Itoje also discussed being the youngest member of the Lions squad, Muhammad Ali, and the importance of his faith.

Maro Itoje
Despite only being 22, Maro Itoje is the reigning European Player of the Year

'Lions is going to be eye-opening'

Itoje made his England debut in 2016 and his 12 caps have included two Six Nations titles - including a Grand Slam in 2016 - plus a 3-0 series whitewash of Australia down under last summer.

His performances for club and country have earned him a place in Warren Gatland's 41-man Lions squad to face New Zealand this summer.

As the youngest member of the squad, he will have the responsibility of looking after the soft-toy tour mascot, Billy.

"I've heard that players try and sabotage it," he said. "I am going to have to keep quite it tight to me, I don't think I can trust anybody, I heard there are some severe punishments."

Speaking about the tour, he added: "I am looking forward to the whole experience. I think it is going to be a real eye-opening experience for me.

"A lot of these guys, I know who they are but I don't really know them - so it will be interesting to get to know these guys, build new relationships and new bonds. And from what I hear, these bonds tend to last a very long time."

Itoje on the 'incredible' Ali

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali was a three-time heavyweight champion of the world

Itoje says his sporting idol is the three-time world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, who died last year aged 74.

Aside from his sporting achievements in the ring, Ali was also a civil rights campaigner who transcended the bounds of sport, race and nationality.

"Obviously his skills in the ring are unbelievable, but what makes him so impressive was his mind," added Itoje, who has lost just once in his England career.

"How he was able to captivate an audience and speak to a crowd. Whether you liked him or not you still respected him. For me, he is well and truly the greatest.

"For me the biggest [thing] was how he put his religious and political beliefs before the boxing. He wasn't afraid of speaking out, when other athletes were afraid of speaking out.

"He wasn't doing this at the end [of his career], he started doing this when he was 21, when he was world champion. He's just an incredible person to look up to."

Itoje, who is a devout Christian, added: "Once you reach a certain level - play for your club and your country - naturally you get a bit of a following and have people of a younger generation looking up to you.

"You go on the pitch and try and play your best and give the best representation of yourself. The by-product of doing that stuff well is people of a younger generation will follow, in the way that when I was a younger player, watching the greats of the past were the same kind of inspiration."

'Champions Cup is going to be special'

Mario Itoje
Maro Itoje was named man of the match in last year's Champions Cup final as Saracens beat Racing 92

Itoje, who can play lock or blind-side flanker, was named man of the match as Saracens became champions of Europe for the first time as they beat Top 14 side Racing 92 in Lyon last May.

On Saturday in Edinburgh they face two-time runners-up Clermont, who have finished second in France's top division regular season to qualify for the play-offs.

"Their fans are probably the loudest, most passionate group I've come across," said Itoje.

"Big games are always different," added the reigning European Player of the Year. "There is always an extra edge and everyone is a bit sharper and more switched on during the week. There is more of a build-up, a bit more anxiety in the lead-up to the game.

"It's going to be special. Clermont are a top side. We are going to prepare unbelievably well. We will leave no stone unturned and make sure we are the best we can be."

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