England star Maro Itoje praises Raheem Sterling and slams coverage of black players who are judged by ‘power and speed’ rather than skill

19 Jun

Maro Itoje claims he would not take his children to football games after witnessing the ‘disgraceful’ behaviour of Arsenal fans towards former boss Arsene Wenger.

The Saracens lock also took aim at the media for their coverage of black players and praised Raheem Sterling for standing up to abuse this season.

A member of Harrow School, Itoje played football alongside rugby as a youngster and used to go to watch the Gunners.

Maro Itoje lifted another Premiership trophy with Saracens last season
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But the 24-year-old was so appalled by the etiquette of the supporters, he has admitted it would be hard to take his children to watch a game in the future.

“I was taken aback by the way the fans behaved, towards each other, towards the players,” Itoje said.

“If I had children, unless I had a box I would not take my child because the behaviour was disgraceful. I saw little kids, 12-year-olds, watching their parents swearing, abusing Arsene Wenger, abusing the players.

“This small boy sees his father do it and so he does it, starts spouting abuse at players, at opposing fans. Horrible.”

Wenger left Arsenal after 22 years and was replaced by Unai Emery
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This season has seen several incidents of racist behaviour at home and abroad in football, with Sterling finding himself involved twice.

The England forward stuck his fingers in his ears in an act of defiance against racist Montenegro supporters and was widely praised for his actions.

But former European Player of the Year Itoje believes the root cause is much closer to home.

He added: “This is not just about sport. This covers how black people are portrayed in any kind of news, there is always a difference.

The 24-year-old is seen as one of the most complete players in modern rugby
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“When they report a murder of a white male, it’s a teenage boy from a loving family in the suburbs, brutally murdered. When it’s a black boy murdered, he was ‘wearing a hoodie’.

“It’s the same in punditry – a lot of the time when they describe black players they talk about athleticism, their power, their speed. They don’t talk so much about their skill, their deft touch.”

Itoje says he encountered no racism while studying at Harrow and had ‘not really’ experienced it on or off the pitch as a player, but he has caveats.

“My experience is not the typical experience of a black man in London because sport is one of the few disciplines or institutions based on merit – (it) should be anyway.”

The Manchester City star has regularly been praised for his approach to dealing with racist abuse
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And, though he ‘can’t easily recall’ direct racism from opposing fans, he added: “Racial abuse on the field I have not personally had but I have friends who have, in county rugby growing up.

“I know someone who was abused racially in the Under-20s World Cup, so that problem is not fully stamped out.”

Asked if he would ever consider walking off the field of play if he did encounter the kind of abuse Sterling had, Itoje said: “I am caught between two minds – nobody should be made to play in front of abusive fans.

“But I am also thinking one, show them; and two, do they win if you walk off?”

Itoje was speaking in a candid podcast interview with Alastair Campbell, the ex-Downing Street Press Secretary, and his daughter Grace, a comedian and activist.

The podcast, titled ‘Football, Feminism and Everything in Between’, is available on Wednesday.

Exeter 34-37 Saracens: Chiefs fall agonisingly close at Twickenham as Sarries win Premiership Final

1 Jun

Saracens completed a memorable European and domestic double after retaining the Premiership title by beating Exeter 37-34 at Twickenham.

The teams shared 10 tries during unquestionably the greatest Premiership final in its 16-year history.

Exeter led after just 28 seconds when scrum-half Nic White claimed the quickest Premiership final touchdown, but Saracens ultimately prevailed.

Saracens lift the Premiership trophy after a brilliant final at Wembley
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The Chiefs led by 11 points after an hour, yet Saracens produced a stellar comeback.

Wings Liam Williams and Sean Maitland touched down, following earlier tries from hooker Jamie George and scrum-half Ben Spencer, before George added a second and Farrell kicked 12 points.

White, flanker Dave Ewers, lock Jonny Hill, centre Henry Slade and substitute Sam Hill crossed for Exeter, and Joe Simmonds added three conversions and a penalty, but the Chiefs once again experienced Twickenham heartbreak.

It was the third time in four seasons for the 2017 champions to lose a final – all against Saracens – as Farrell and company followed up European title success three weeks ago with another trophy.

Nic White scored early for the Chiefs
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And it meant a second double in four years, emulating Leicester as only the second English club to achieve such a feat.

Both teams were unchanged following their play-off victories last weekend, with Saracens captain Brad Barritt overcoming a hamstring injury that forced him off against Gloucester to start.

And the final began in remarkable fashion, with 12 points being scored inside the opening five minutes.

Exeter kicked off, but Saracens and England lock George Kruis fumbled possession, giving the Chiefs the chance to attack on front-foot ball and White crossed from close range for a try that Simmonds converted.

Maro Itoje powers through the gain line
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But Saracens responded, launching an initial attack that ended when Slade deliberately knocked on a pass from full-back Alex Goode to Maitland, and was sin-binned by referee Wayne Barnes as a result.

Slade had barely left the pitch before Saracens drove a lineout from the resulting penalty, and George crashed over.

Farrell missed the conversion, but he landed a 35-metre penalty shortly afterwards and Saracens led 8-7 following a breathless start.

Saracens then extended their lead following a Billy Vunipola scrum charge that spread Exeter’s defence, and Spencer touched down to open up a 13-7 advantage.

Henry Slade thought he had won it for Exeter
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Farrell again could not add the extras, and Exeter replied following another frantic passage of play that started with them laying siege to Saracens’ line.

Saracens were reduced to frantic defending, and flanker Maro Itoje, who was sin-binned during the Champions Cup final victory over Leinster, again saw yellow, and Exeter did not require a second invitation to pounce.

A man down, Saracens could not hold out under sustained pressure, and Ewers claimed Exeter’s second try before Smmonds’ conversion gave them a one-point advantage.

And the Chiefs moved further ahead nine minutes before the break when Slade and his England colleague Jack Nowell linked superbly in midfield, before Hill touched down.

Jamie George celebrates after crossing the white wash
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Simmonds’ conversion glanced off the post, then Farrell booted a 40-metre penalty that cut the deficit to three points, but Simmonds responded and Exeter trooped off 22-16 ahead at the break.

Barritt, though, did not return for the second period, being replaced by Nick Tompkins, before Spencer went off for a head injury assessment as Saracens suffered a disruptive opening.

Saracens dominated much of the third quarter, but Exeter continued to hassle and chase them, making life distinctly uncomfortable for their opponents.

And such in-the-face-pressure was rewarded through a fourth try, with Slade the beneficiary following brilliant work by replacement lock Sam Skinner.

Sean Maitland celebrates with teammate Nick Tompkins after scoring his team’s fourth try
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But Saracens responded again and Williams struck after a Farrell kick, with the fly-half’s conversion making it 27-23.

Maitland then crossed 12 minutes from time, with Farrell converting, and although the fly-half missed a later penalty chance, George’s second touchdown sealed the deal and Saracens were home, despite Hill’s late effort that Simmonds converted.

Mako Vunipola ruled out for three months with hamstring injury as England prop faces battle to be fit for World Cup

17 May

England prop Mako Vunipola is in a race against time to be fit for the World Cup after being told he needs hamstring surgery.

Vunipola, 28, has been ruled out for at least three months with the injury sustained in Saturday’s Champions Cup final victory over Leinster in Newcastle.

Vunipola faces a race to be fit for the World Cup in Japan
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“Vunipola’s hamstring injury requires surgery and will take a minimum of three months to recover,” read a statement issued by his club Saracens.

Saracens were more upbeat over his outlook on Wednesday only for a visit to a specialist to reveal the true extent of the damage.

“Mako won’t be out of the World Cup, but he’ll be out for a while,” said Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall.

“It’s quite a significant injury. It’s disappointing to lose two players of that quality. It makes us a little bit vulnerable.”

The prop has won 56 caps for England
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England fly to Japan on September 8 and play their opening match against Tonga two weeks later.

Even if Vunipola’s recovery takes the minimum three months, he will be forced to miss two of the four warm-up matches ahead of the tournament.

Billy Vunipola formally warned by Saracens after defending Israel Folau over homophobic comments

15 Apr

Saracens have formally warned  Billy Vunipola about his future conduct after he made ‘a serious error of judgement’ by defending a homophobic Instagram post by Israel Folau.

The England forward posted a message on Instagram on Friday that includes the line ‘Man was made for woman to procreate that was the goal no?’.

Vunipola was acting in support of Australia full-back and fellow devout Christian Folau, who stated on social media that ‘hell awaits’ for ‘homosexuals’.

Billy Vunipola has been warned about his future conduct by Saracens

Saracens – who held ‘lengthy discussions’ on Sunday with the number eight – said in a statement: “At Saracens, we are one family, open to all with the firm view that everyone should be treated equally with respect and humility.

“We recognise the complexity of different belief systems and understand Billy’s intention was to express the word of God rather than cause offence.

“However, he made a serious error of judgement in publicly sharing his opinion, which is inconsistent with the values of the club and contravenes his contractual obligations. The player has been formally warned about his future conduct.”

Vunipola insisted that his “intention was never to cause suffering” but stopped short of offering an apology in a statement on Saracens’ website.

Israel Folau’s comments drew widespread criticism

He said: “I can see that my recent post has hurt people. My intention was never to cause suffering. My intention was to express my belief in the word of God.

“These beliefs are a source of great strength, comfort and guidance in my life. This is deeply personal and does not represent the views of my team.

“Anyone who knows me, knows I live with kindness and love towards ALL people.

“I have faith. My Christian faith has sustained me through the ups and many downs of my life. God has given and continues to give me many reasons in life to be grateful.”

Tottenham new stadium: Spurs agree partnership with Saracens to host annual ‘Big Game’ at £1billion ground

2 Apr

Tottenham have reached an agreement with Premiership Rugby side Saracens to host their annual ‘Big Game’ at their stunning new stadium, the Premier League club have announced.

The fixture, which usually takes place during March, has previously been held at both Wembley and the London Stadium.

The latter held this year’s match, which Sarries won 27-20 last week.

Tottenham’s new stadium officially opens this week after a six-month delay

Premiership Rugby becomes the third sport confirmed to take place at Spurs’ new ground, which officially opens on Wednesday.

As well as football and rugby, there is a long-term agreement with NFL to host regular season matches at the £1billion structure.

It is believed Tottenham hope to host NFL’s flagship fixture, the Super Bowl, in the coming years.

Daniel Levy, the Tottenham chairman, said: “This agreement with Saracens further reinforces our aspiration to deliver a world-class multi-use venue in our home of Tottenham.

“To attract one of world rugby’s biggest club sides will bring a new audience to the area, as well as help drive significant socio-economic benefits for businesses and local people, as we continue to underline our commitment to the regeneration of north Tottenham.

“We look forward to welcoming Saracens and their fans to Tottenham and delivering world-class rugby matchday experiences, showcasing our new stadium and all the surrounding area has to offer.

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“This is an exciting partnership and, alongside Premier League and NFL matches, it is one that continues to underline our desire to create a sports and entertainment destination that we believe can transform this area of London.”

More follows.

Gallagher Premiership Review: Saracens and Gloucester maintain play-off charges as Worcester edge relegation battle with Bristol

23 Mar

It was another busy and frantic day in the Gallagher Premiership on Saturday, with the stars of the Guinness Six Nations returning to club action.

There as a London derby at West Ham’s London stadium as champions Saracens took on Harlequins.

There was a nail-biting finale during Worcester’s trip to Bristol

Gloucester looked to maintain their push for a play-off place as they welcomed Wasps to Kingsholm.

And Bristol welcomed Worcester in what was a relegation battle with a nail-biting finish.

Scroll down to see a comprehensive review of all the action.

SARACENS 27-20 HARLEQUINS

Skleton was unplayable at West Ham’s London Stadium

Will Skelton took centre stage at the London Stadium by rescuing Saracens with two unstoppable short-range tries in a 27-20 Gallagher Premiership victory over Harlequins.

The champions fought back from a 17-6 interval deficit through touchdowns by Schalk Burger and Skelton to breathe life into a capital derby that had served up a dismal first half in front of a 42,717 crowd.

Quins were able to capitalise on the repeated mistakes made by Saracens to seize control when half-backs Marcus Smith and Danny Care crossed.

But the match was turned on its head from the moment the second half began and the fightback was done the hard way after Billy Vunipola and David Strettle had tries disallowed.

On both occasions JP Doyle’s decision-making was disputed by Saracens, who claimed that the referee should have allowed the scores to stand. The second ended with Care and Liam Williams being sent to the sin-bin for a lengthy scuffle.

But the home pack had woken up and it was another muscular short-range drive by Skelton, the outstanding Australia lock who was also named man of the match, which ultimately subdued Harlequins.

GLOUCESTER 27-14 WASPS

Jake Polledri goes over for Gloucester

Gloucester maintained their push for a Gallagher Premiership play-off place after beating Wasps 27-14 at Kingsholm.

First-half tries by captain Willi Heinz and flanker Ruan Ackermann put Wasps on the back foot, while centre Billy Twelvetrees kicked two conversions and a penalty.

Wasps have won just two of their last 14 games in all competitions, and their play-off hopes effectively evaporated despite a promising start that saw them lead through wing Marcus Watson’s try and two Rob Miller penalties.

Miller booted a third penalty 17 minutes from time, and Wasps’ England back Elliot Daly sent a long-range kick well wide as Gloucester had to dig deep.

But a late Twelvetrees penalty and Jake Polledri touchdown that Twelvetrees converted ensured victory.

BRISTOL 25-27 WORCESTER

Worcester celebrated their narrow victory

Worcester completed the double with a nail-biting 27-25 win over Bristol to boost their hopes of avoiding relegation from the Gallagher Premiership.

Warriors won 52-7 at Sixways back in October but they had to work much harder for this success and by overcoming a number of setbacks and two yellow cards to pick up a crucial win.

Ted Hill, Josh Adams and Ben Te’o scored their tries with Duncan Weir converting all three and adding two penalties.

Luke Morahan and Callum Sheedy scored tries for Bristol. There was also a penalty try award with Sheedy kicking two penalties and a conversion.

Maro Itoje EXCLUSIVE: Saracens star dismisses England captaincy rumours and throws weight behind Owen Farrell

22 Mar

Maro Itoje has launched a passionate defence of England captain Owen Farrell – despite calls for him to replace his Saracens team-mate.

Farrell had a second-half to forget during the Six Nations capitulation against Scotland last weekend as England blew a 31-point lead to draw 38-38 in their final 2019 Six Nations game.

In the astonishing curtain closer, England’s skipper was pulled from the action by head coach Eddie Jones, who said the fly-half had ‘lost a bit of his edge’.

Itoje has emerged as a candidate for the captaincy

England have suffered defeat in five of the 12 Tests which Farrell has presided as captain, and there are suggestions the responsibility is too much of a burden for the kicker.

Itoje’s name has been mentioned as a potential replacement to relieve some of the pressure on Farrell, however the lock insists his Saracens team-mate remains the best man for the job.

“I’ve seen him as a captain and when he’s not captain and I think he improves when he has that responsibility,” he told talkSPORT in an exclusive interview.

“He improves in terms of the way he communicates, the way he plays, the way he carries himself and the way he thinks about the team. Almost all aspects of his game improve.

“He’s the type of player and the type of person who lives and breathes rugby. So there are not many people, if anyone, who have a better rugby intellect than Owen.”

And Itoje insists has no leadership ambitions of his own, focusing only on doing whatever it takes to win.

There have been calls to replace Farrell as captain

“That’s not in my psyche,” he added.

“My main concern, first and foremost, is to do anything I can to support the teams that I’m playing in.

“Winning is the most important thing for me, it’s not about egos, it’s about helping my team do what needs to be done in order to win.

“At the moment, part of that role is supporting the captain.

“I think Owen has done a fantastic job. I’ve been up close and seen it with my own eyes. He commands respect from the whole squad.”

Itoje missed the majority of England’s Six Nations campaign after picking up a left medial ligament injury during the opening victory over Ireland.

Itoje featured in England’s victory over Ireland before picking up an injury

After watching on from the sidelines, the 24-year-old gave his take on where it went wrong for England, as they missed out on the Championship to Wales.

“Every game of rugby throws different challenges at you,” he continued.

“Whether it’s the team, the opposition, the referee or the crowd.

“All those different facets of the game are changing all the time and they throw different obstacles that you have to jump over.

Farrell was pulled from the action against Scotland

“There have been times when we’ve faced these hurdles and we’ve overcome those challenges.

“There’s also been times when we haven’t done as well as we should’ve done in those situations. Obviously, Scotland is an example.

“It’s not as if we’re incapable of doing it, it’s about making sure we’re more consistent and we don’t let teams stay on top of us for that long.”

BT Sport brings you all the action from the Gallagher Premiership and Heineken Champions Cup. Watch Saracens v Harlequins this Saturday at 2:30pm, exclusively live on BT Sport 1 and the award-winning app.

Bath 18-9 Saracens: Rhys Priestland kicks six penalties as they stun Gallagher Premiership leaders at the Recreation Ground

8 Mar

Fly-half Rhys Priestland kicked six penalties as Bath finally managed to held on to a lead to topple second-placed Saracens 18-9 in the Gallagher Premiership.

The champions were missing their England contingent, but it was their ill-discipline which let them down on a wet night at the Recreation Ground, as well as a patchy goal-kicking display by Alex Lozowski.

Rhys Priestland was clinical from the tee for Bath

The result resurrected Bath’s hopes of a top-six finish after last-minute defeats in their last two games.

Priestland opened the scoring after five minutes after a Zach Mercer offload to Elliott Stooke got Bath behind the visitors’ defence and Saracens gave away a penalty under their posts.

Lozowski hooked a fairly straightforward kick at the other end soon after, but quickly made amends with an 11th-minute strike from 40 metres.

In steady rain, there were many more rucks than line-breaks and Saracens began to build pressure ominously with their driving play until Nathan Catt ripped the ball free on his own 22. The Bath loosehead was as busy as anyone in defence, helping to hold the Saracens runners on the gain-line.

British and Irish Lion Jonathon Joseph on the ball for the hosts

When presented with a kickable penalty at the other end, Priestland opted for a kick to touch. Stooke’s take was clean enough and the visitors infringed again at the breakdown. Priestland made the score 6-3 from close range.

With full-back Tom Homer, solid under the high ball despite the conditions, Bath began to play more expansively, although Priestland hit the post with another penalty attempt on the half-hour.

Surprisingly, it was the visitors’ handling skills that were suspect. Will Skelton spilled the ball in a tackle just inside the Bath 22 and Alex Goode dropped a simple pass from his scrum-half Ben Spencer.

Bath began to get the upper hand in the scrum and Priestland kicked a third penalty to earn a 9-3 half-time lead.

Alex Lozowski lacked accuracy with the boot

However, the Saracens front row turned the tables immediately after the break, earning a penalty that Lozowski landed from 30 metres.

Presented with another straightforward kick, Lozowski hooked it wide, but Priestland’s 22 drop-out was charged down by Skelton. Bath won the scrum, but Lozowski brought the scores level.

As the rain cleared away, Bath struggled at first to match the visitors’ intensity, but clawed their way back upfield on the back of their opponents’ indiscipline. Finally, replacement back row Ben Earl was sent to the bin just after the hour and Priestland booted Bath back in front.

But their discipline began to fray too, and a needless block off the ball by replacement hooker Ross Batty saw the home side reduced to 14 men for the last 10 minutes.

Lozowski was wide again with the kick, but Priestland made no mistake when presented with a difficult chance at the other end to put Bath 15-9 ahead after 75 minutes.

The Welsh fly-half put the result beyond doubt with his sixth penalty two minutes from time.

England international Elliot Daly to sign for Saracens after leaving Wasps

5 Feb

Elliot Daly will join Saracens in the summer, the Gallagher Premiership club have announced.

The versatile back, who can play at full-back, wing or centre, will leave Wasps and has signed a deal until summer 2022.

Elliot Daly scoring against South Africa

Daly told Saracens’ official website: “At 26, I believe it is the right time in my career to explore a fresh challenge and the opportunity to do that with Saracens really excites me.

“It’s a fantastic club which has had a lot of success in recent seasons and that’s something that I want to be a part of.

“I’ve played with a few of the lads for England and the Lions, as well as enjoyed battles against them in the Premiership, and I’m looking forward to calling them club team-mates from next season.”

Daly, who has also played for the British and Irish Lions, is a former Premiership Young Player of the Season and was twice nominated for European Player of the Year.

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall said: “We are looking forward to welcoming Elliot to the club next season.

“He’s a talented player and at 26, his best years are ahead of him. Everyone at Saracens is excited to see him fulfil his potential with us.”