Itoje-fest could be the best yet this year, as Maro returns to his parents’ garden in Edgware for their souped-up family barbecue in September full of Lions stories.
‘It started in 2018, so we’re on to our third version having missed it last year; Ugo Monye keeps asking for an invite!’ Itoje’s brother Jeremy tells Sportsmail with a laugh.
‘All of north-west London comes to our parents’ garden in Edgware for Itoje-fest!
Maro Itoje is looking to write his name into the history books with the Lions in South Africa
Jeremy Itoje, Maro’s older brother, has given fans a insight into the rugby star’s background
‘On the patio we have a DJ — our mate DJ Salus — there’s music, Nigerian food, as well as burgers and sausages. It’s party theme!’
There will be plenty to celebrate if Maro and the Lions complete their series win over South Africa over the coming two weekends.
Jeremy — two days less than a year older than Maro, aged 27 — watched the first Test at their shared house south of Barnet.
‘At the stadium I’m pretty low-key, but in my own space I go crazy!’, he says sitting on the sofa of their five-bedroom home, having welcomed Sportsmail into the place they used to share with Saracens wing Rotimi Segun.
‘I had a few friends over and we were going absolutely mental for it. Especially his performance — I was screaming at the TV.
‘In terms of a defensive performance, it was one of the best I’ve seen from him. I think he still has a bit more to offer offensively but from a defensive side it was class.’
The Itojes, like all Lions families, have to watch from afar this time. They travelled to New Zealand four years ago, when Maro was the youngest tourist, and loved it.
Itoje won the Man of the Match award for his towering display in the first Test vs Springboks
‘We were there for three weeks, so the Tests and the Hurricanes game,’ adds Jeremy.
‘It was awesome — especially with how cocky the Kiwis were, it’s crazy! I remember I was in the lift with this retired 70-year-old All Black and he was like, “You guys are going to lose 3-0… no chance”.
‘He had no idea I was Maro’s brother. The Wellington second Test was class — especially when they were singing, “Oh Maro Itoje” at the end. Even Alun Wyn Jones was singing it.’
There are few clues at chez Itoje that one occupant is a sporting great. Two pointers stand out. On a sofa in the living room sits the stuffed toy lion given to him as a 22-year-old in New Zealand.
Contrary to popular belief, the youngest player is allowed to keep the toy, so for these Tests it has pride of place at home.
The second hint is a framed photo of him with mother Florence, father Efe, sister Isabel and brother Jeremy after the 2017 second Lions Test in Wellington. The family are all wrapped up in scarves and hats, Maro, having completed his coming-of-age performance to beat the All Blacks, in full kit and beaming with them.
Otherwise, as you might expect, Itoje’s sanctuary is hardly an homage to rugby.
Jeremy (second left) and the family celebrate with Maro after the second Test win in New Zealand in 2017
Two large prints of African art adorn the short hallway. In the main sitting room where Jeremy chats away, six more pieces depicting elegant ladies add vibrant splashes of colour to the walls.
Beside the fireplace sit two bejewelled female figures, a thin talking-drum over in the corner.
‘Maro loves his African art,’ Jeremy explains. ‘Every time we go back to Nigeria, he goes to a market in Lagos where he picks it all up from. He curated an exhibition in Mayfair with a few African artists recently, which was really cool. I went down, and you see all these faces that are in the papers… David Lammy, Mrs Blair, Diane Abbott, a few other artists and DJ Cuppy. It was nice.’
As we talk a fox leaps across Maro and Jeremy’s garden — perhaps eyeing up the koi carp, goldfish and sturgeon the last owner left in their pond two years ago.
‘Unfortunately one of the sturgeons died the other week,’ Jeremy says. ‘But Maro knows. It happened when he was here.’
During their daily chats, Jeremy and Maro discuss the house more than skewering Springboks.
‘We speak pretty much every day — but hardly about rugby,’ Jeremy continues. ‘There’s a builder coming soon. In the garage we have a gym, but we’re changing it to kit it out a bit more. There was a leak the other day, stuff like that!’
As brothers and house-mates, of course Jeremy and Maro share a special bond — even if they are Manchester United and Arsenal fans respectively.
Every October until they were teenagers they would share birthday parties, as well as spending hours together playing Fight Night boxing games and watching WWE wrestling at home in Cricklewood and Edgware.
Jeremy’s graduation photo with father Efe (top left), mother Florence (bottom left), Maro (back centre) and sister Isabel (top right)
Jeremy revealed all about his brother’s upbringing with him standing on the brink of history
‘He was a big Undertaker fan, and we both liked The Rock.’ smiles Jeremy, who undertook a white-collar boxing fight while at Loughborough University.
‘When it came to sport I wouldn’t say it was much of a competition, as Maro was a 200m runner, threw shot put and played basketball. He was very much superman at that sort of stuff.
‘Ever since my dad got us Fight Night for the PlayStation in 2005 we’ve been entrenched in boxing.
‘I would always pick Muhammad Ali and Maro would be Joe Frazier or Roy Jones Jnr. My dad was a massive Ali fan. We’d have car journeys where he would tell us about his fights.’
While they did once play rugby together when at St George’s Harpenden before Maro moved to Harrow School — Jeremy playing tighthead prop was amazed at how easy it was to lift Maro the lock in the lineout — playing sport has never been an end-goal for any member of the Itoje family.
‘My dad has an educational past, both he and my mum did university and master’s degrees, so for them education was the main thing,’ says Jeremy, chief of staff for the financial services and insurance part of IT giant Atos.
‘Growing up we didn’t think about rugby, we would have much rather been wrestlers or footballers. Sol Campbell was one of his heroes, as was Jay-Jay Okocha.’
The Itoje sister, Isabel, is a coming force in her field too. At 25, she helps women displaced from homes due to domestic violence, while also educating around race and acting since graduating from university.
Jeremy was amazed how easy Maro was to lift in the line during their school days together
So the conversations around the dinner table have always reached deeper than rucks and mauls.
‘Our family have always discussed race,’ says Jeremy. ‘As a family with Nigerian heritage in Britain, it’s probably irresponsible if you’re not discussing race with your kids.
‘My dad always spoke about it. We have political debates around feminism with my sister, discussions about what Boris Johnson is getting up to. Rugby is at the very end of the conversation scale.’
It largely is for Maro too. The England lock, still just 26, is far keener to talk art, politics, the merits of taking the knee, his work around The Black Curriculum and The Digital Divide — a stance fully supported by his family.
‘If he had just been a rugby player that would have been awesome, right? But he can do a lot more from his platform, and has the responsibility to,’ Jeremy says.
‘In particular we’re really proud of those extra bits he does. If you have a care and a passion about something, I think it’s your responsibility to say what it is.’
So while Maro cements himself as the Lion King in South Africa, come Itoje-fest his family will be far prouder of the impact he makes outside the game as they tuck into jollof rice, burgers and yams in north London.