In a sport that requires ferocious power and unrelenting drive, it is no surprise that the hulking figure of Maro Itoje has become England’s latest rugby sensation.
Although his 6ft 5in, 18st 4lb physique suggests a lifetime spent in the gym in pursuit of his dream, however, he is just as likely to be found writing poetry while his friends practise on the pitch.
Other perhaps surprising interests include classical singing, the opera, visiting art galleries and debating foreign policy.
But a glance at the aspirational background of this 21-year-old son of immigrant parents from Nigeria shows that he is no ordinary sportsman.
His eye-catching talent as a youngster saw him awarded a sports scholarship to £36,000-a-year public school Harrow.
With it came a warning from his parents that if he neglected his studies he could forget about rugby.
As well as being told to put his schoolwork first, he was also given stern advice that he would have to ‘fight extra hard’ for opportunities because he belonged to an ethnic minority.
The player heeded the wise words and was yesterday hailed as a future England captain after being included for the first time in the starting line-up of the Six Nations team that will play Ireland tomorrow.
He has already captained his club side Saracens in the Aviva Premiership, and captained England’s under-20 side during their victory at the Junior World Championship in 2014.
In keeping with his family’s advice, Itoje – nicknamed ‘the chosen one’ by teammates – shuns partying and insists that rugby is just one in a long list of interests.
While rapidly rising through the ranks of English rugby, he has also been studying for a politics degree at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
The player – who left Harrow with A grades in A-level economics, statistics and politics – was in the choir there and is an avid poet, having taken up writing while on a long-distance rugby trip.
Itoje is pictured with his 48-year-old father Efe
He was born in Camden, North London, after his parents Efe and Florence moved to Britain after marrying in Nigeria. While studying at St George’s, a boarding school in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, Itoje represented youth national teams in shot-put and basketball. His physicality, however, saw him earmarked as a natural rugby player and he was awarded a bursary to Harrow at the age of 16 despite his limited experience.
The move came with that stern warning from his father, a special needs teacher, who told him that his schoolwork was more important.
Mr Itoje, 48, once said: ‘I made it quite clear from a very early stage that if his grades dropped, the rugby stopped.
‘I told him he needed to make a decision. If he wanted to play rugby then fine, but if his grades dropped I’d declare war on him.’
He added: ‘He was always a very focused young man. He didn’t want to go partying like other teenagers. He was quite unusual in that respect.
‘We instilled the need to be the best he can be and he’s certainly delivered on that front. He’s kept his promise.
‘I’m so proud of him. He’s been blessed with natural talent and he’s a role model as well. The way he conducts himself is very important. He’s my role model now.’
The sportsman grew up in the family’s £700,000 house in Edgware, North London, with his siblings Jeremy, 22, and Isabel, 18.
Itoje has acknowledged the huge inspiration passed from his father and mother, who works as a business administrator. ‘For my family, education is highly important and as a result they ensured that my studies never diminished due to my sporting commitments,’ he said.
‘Not just me, but I think 99 per cent of kids would rather play football or rugby than do their homework. As I grew up I realised the importance of it.’
Unlike many leading sportsmen, Itoje is open about his wide breadth of hobbies, which also include enjoying cricket and even listening to gangster rap.
He is also a devout Christian, thanking God for his call-up to the England national squad in January and once posting a picture of the New Testament on a social media account.
The youngster has become a national sensation in England
The player is unashamed to share his views on controversial topics, such as foreign aid, which he had previously described as causing ‘more damage than good’ in Africa.
He said: ‘It breeds dependency. It breeds inefficiencies in the economy. It does not help make economies independent or standalone.
‘There are so many misconceptions about foreign aid. People think it goes to those who are suffering or starving like they see in the TV adverts but that’s hugely false.’
Harrow’s head of sport Jesse Coulson described Itoje as a ‘unique student’.
He said: ‘He was inspirational to the other boys because he always strived to be the best he could be academically but also to be a top athlete. That combination is quite rare these days.’