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Itoje hopes Philadelphia showpiece will spread awareness

by 15/09/2017 20:04:00 0 comments 1 Views
  • Saracens will take on Newcastle at the Talen Energy Stadium in Philadelphia
  • The showpiece will hope to spread awareness of Rugby around America 
  • Maro Itoje says: 'Rugby's growing and it's been growing at an exponential rate' 
  • But Saracens will be focused on making up for last week's defeat to Bath  

By Nik Simon for the Daily Mail

Published: 17:32 EDT, 15 September 2017 | Updated: 20:04 EDT, 15 September 2017

There were fewer autograph hunters than usual as Maro Itoje stepped out of the team hotel to grab a Philly cheese-steak, walk up the Rocky steps and visit the African American Museum.

If it were not for his 6ft5 and 18st4lb frame, he could have passed for any other tourist in Philadelphia, where Saracens face Newcastle tonight as the Premiership seeks fame and fortune in the USA.

'Rugby isn't their natural sport here,' said the second row.

Maro Itoje is set to start as his Saracens side take on Newcastle in Philadelphia on Saturday 
Maro Itoje is set to start as his Saracens side take on Newcastle in Philadelphia on Saturday 

Maro Itoje is set to start as his Saracens side take on Newcastle in Philadelphia on Saturday 

'But it's the largest economy in the world so, from a financial point of view, it makes sense for the powers that be to get on this market.'

Having graduated during the summer – missing his ceremony because of the Lions tour – the politics student was keen to learn more about the country often styled as rugby's sleeping giant.

'It's cool to get a flavour of the city and its history – from slavery to the abolition to the civil rights movement,' said Itoje, whose parents are from Nigeria.

'At one point in time, Philadelphia had the highest amount of freed African American slaves.'

The showpiece in America is being played in the hope of spreading awareness of the sport
The showpiece in America is being played in the hope of spreading awareness of the sport

The showpiece in America is being played in the hope of spreading awareness of the sport

Itoje has mixed social time with training since touching down on American soil last Sunday.

Saturday's fixture has relocated to the Talen Energy Stadium, the home of Philadelphia's Major League Soccer team, in a bid to spread rugby's gospel and Itoje is the sport's most marketable asset.

There is a long way to go but the lock has already been earmarked for his States appeal - with national broadcaster CNN running a feature entitled 'The double life of England's Super Maro'.

'Rugby's growing and it's been growing at an exponential rate since it turned professional,' said Itoje. 'In terms of the power, the pace, the skill but also in terms of the team behind the team.

'I've noticed people in Philadelphia are sports crazy.

The Talen Energy Stadium is usually the home of Philadelphia's Major League Soccer team
The Talen Energy Stadium is usually the home of Philadelphia's Major League Soccer team

The Talen Energy Stadium is usually the home of Philadelphia's Major League Soccer team

He added: 'They all think we're crazy because we don't have pads but I tell them we'll be OK. I used to play basketball so I follow big teams, the Golden States, the Cleveland Cavaliers, especially around the play offs.

'I follow LeBron James, Steph Curry, some former players like Magic Johnson, some old NBA players like Hakeem Olajuwon. What's really interesting is the personalities in the teams that drive them forward.

'Every team has a bunch of characters. We have a few at Saracens. it's impossible to have 15 players the same. When it comes to getting successful teams together, you need characters who behave differently, operate differently, think differently, but who all have the goal of being successful'

Saracens have selected all of their available Lions players to put on a blockbuster show.

Saracens are the current European champions but suffered a loss to Bath last week 
Saracens are the current European champions but suffered a loss to Bath last week 

Saracens are the current European champions but suffered a loss to Bath last week 

Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola, Liam Williams and Owen Farrell all make their first starts of the season – with rookie lock Nick Isiekwe partnering Itoje in the absence of injured George Kruis.

The European champions are the standard bearers for northern hemisphere rugby, however, the game is more than a marketing mission as Saracens seek to avenge last week's defeat by Bath.

'We felt as if we didn't really put a Saracens performance out there,' said Itoje. 'I think in the long run it will be a good thing for us, especially this early on in the season to learn those lessons. There are going to be a lot of highs and a lot of lows and it is important to remain level and not go too high with the highs and not get too low for the lows. No one went too crazy.'

Newcastle, meanwhile, are second in the early standings following their unbeaten start.

Itoje will hope to help his side beat Newcastle who have started the new season unbeaten 
Itoje will hope to help his side beat Newcastle who have started the new season unbeaten 

Itoje will hope to help his side beat Newcastle who have started the new season unbeaten 

Fronted up by flankers Mark Wilson and Will Welch, who are both pushing for England calls next week, the Falcons are making progress.

'This trips about letting the lads enjoy themselves but our aim is to win,' said Falcons head coach Dave Walder, whose side have conceded just 20 points in the opening two rounds. 'We've spoken to some NFL players and our physios have been to see the Philadelphia 76ers and the baseball, too,

'People in the north east go to sport to be entertained. I'm from Newcastle originally and I've followed Newcastle United for years. They like to see Kevin Keegan, Bobby Robson - local lads wearing their heart on their sleeves. Ultimately they want success, so you want to win, but you want to win in the right way.'

A slow and turgid game on Saturday will win neither hearts nor minds in Pennsylvania.

NFL, baseball, basketball and ice hockey dominate the airwaves and promoters have been on a late marketing push to try to fill up the 19,500-seat stadium, to avoid embarrassing empty seats.

Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell (right) are all set to make their first starts
Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell (right) are all set to make their first starts

Mako Vunipola, Billy Vunipola and Owen Farrell (right) are all set to make their first starts

The debate over local quarterbacks dominated the sports pages in Friday's Philadelphia newspapers and former Saracens CEO Edwards Griffiths has compared the game to planting a seed in a desert.

Itoje, however, hopes rugby can take back its own learnings from its US venture.

'What I love about American sports is the show they put on around the event,' said Itoje. 'Even if you go to a game and its turns out to be a relatively boring game, the whole show ensures you get your money's worth.

'Certainly when you go to some rugby games you think this could be done better, or the half time show is a little bit off, or there is no half time show - it's something that we could look at.'

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