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‘I keep myself to myself’: Beno Obano, Maro Itoje on dealing with rugby’s culture clash

By Jack de Menezes
31 July 2020   |   4:15 am
England hopeful, Beno Obano, has opened up on the culture clash that he has experienced as a rugby player of Nigerian descent, with the Bath prop admitting that he chooses to keep himself...

Maro Itoje

England hopeful, Beno Obano, has opened up on the culture clash that he has experienced as a rugby player of Nigerian descent, with the Bath prop admitting that he chooses to keep himself to himself when his interests and lifestyle choices don’t match up with his teammates.

Sports find themselves under the microscope with how they actively work to improve and encourage diversity following the killing of George Floyd while in police custody, and rugby union is no different. The Rugby Football Union has established a diversity and inclusion working group, which has called for the governing body to implement 10 new recommendations that includes 30 per cent new council members with “projected characteristics including race”.

The RFU is also reviewing the use of Swing Low Sweet Chariot as its official anthem due to its connotations with slavery, and the Exeter Chiefs will tomorrow discuss potentially changing their name, logo and mascot because of the links to Native Americans – which follows the decision by Washington to drop the ‘Redskins’ name.

Bath forward Obano appears this week on Maro Itoje’s latest episode of his new Pearl Conversations podcast to discuss his England hopes, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and how he was found being a black man of African descent in a sport that is made up predominantly of white British people.

Itoje has spoken openly before of diversity within rugby union and the need to make the sport more inclusive, and his cousin Obano added his own views that he has found his best way to deal with cultural differences is to keep to his own interests.

“The way I sort of did it all the way I have done and the way I do it today is keep myself to myself. That’s probably it really,” Obano said.

“Often the things that they find enjoyable is not really what I find enjoyable, or the things that they find ok (are) not things that I find ok. The things that they find enjoyable just is not the same, the banter is not the same, the music… all they love to do is complain about my music in the gym. Just 24/7, just complain and complain, so what I just decided to do was keep myself to myself, go out, play rugby and do your thing and just keep a good relationship, you’re closer with some than others through different avenues, but real closeness is tough to do when your cultures are so separate. Even though some you do talk to sometimes understand it, but understanding is different to living something so that’s really the divide.

“So I just keep myself to myself and what you find is, or what I find is, if you’re cold at something people generally try and be like you rather than you having to fit into their space. So they feel uncomfortable in your space and then try and talk to you about ‘Oh have you heard Future’s new album? Do you know them ones?’ Or ‘Ah Burna Boy’s so good!’ Them ones!

“That’s what they’re bringing to the conversation. I just keep myself to myself, I’m not talking to you about Red Hot Chili Peppers big man. Do you know what I mean? So that’s basically what happens and that’s what I’ve noticed. So I just keep myself to myself and if you play well people will try and ingratiate themselves with you.”

Itoje has spoken of how racism can infiltrate the sport, having previous called on rugby to “remain vigilant” before expanding on what he meant earlier last month by detailing examples of racism that are passed off as “banter”. It adds to the feeling growing up that for children of a non-English background, rugby was not really for them.

“For you and I rugby has never really been (there) when we were growing up – as you said from when we were born to when we went to secondary school,” Itoje said.

“Before then rugby was never really a thing for us. Coming from a Nigerian household where if it’s any sport at all it’s football, if it’s not football then it’s books.”

Born three days apart, Obano and Itoje first trained together within the England camp in January 2018 ahead of the Six Nations that year, but Obano was not selected by Eddie Jones and he suffered a serious knee injury in training on the summer tour of South Africa four months later.

But despite returning to play for England against the Barbarians in 2019, Obano recognises the scars left by that injury – not the physical ones that were left by the surgeries need to repair all of the damaged ligaments as well as his hamstring tendon – but the mental ones that leave him unable to trust the medical advice passed onto him by physios.

“Because of my hamstring I don’t trust physios that much,” he revealed. “So I don’t trust what they say, but I have a good friend of mine called Keir Wenham-Flatt, he works in college football now in America, and if I had an issue I would always call him and I think that was important.

“So the physios would suggest something and I’d call people to make sure what I’m doing is correct and then all you have to do is make a good plan and just stick at it and be consistent with it and that’s basically what I did. I just trusted the people that I knew and the physios that I knew that I trusted, not just the club physios, and basically created a plan with them and then followed that.

“I remember I’d get into so many arguments with my physio because they told me to do stuff I would refuse to do, but it all worked! I got back in nine months innit.”

The injury wrecked any chance he had of going to the Rugby World Cup last year, with Mako Vunipola, Ellis Genge and Joe Marler well ahead of him in the loosehead prop pecking order under Eddie Jones.

But that has not diminished his appetite for international rugby, which he credits to his parents and their high expectations of him in everything he does.

“I think my parents instilled in me that you have to try and be the best at what you do,” he said. “So you’d come home and you’ve got a B, they’re like ‘why didn’t you get an A?’ You come home get an A, they’re like ‘why didn’t you get an A*?’ So I think that’s always been in my thought process, so to play for England is one of the highest honours therefore ‘why aren’t you playing for England? And your cousin’s playing for England, your closest friends are playing for England and big man you’re not playing for England.’

“So it weighs on me quite a bit, like I have to try and achieve that in order essentially to be a success.”

It’s quite an important thing in my life and in my mind that it’s something I have to achieve. Otherwise, not all the hard work has gone to waste because you wouldn’t be where you are, but I just feel that I wouldn’t have succeeded in what I attempted to do and achieve throughout my life.”

‘Pearl Conversations’ is the new podcast from Maro Itoje. With competitive rugby put on hold during the coronavirus outbreak, Maro has recorded conversations during lockdown with a number of groundbreakers from across society, including: Kyle Sinckler, Eni Aluko, Cuppy Music, Leomie Anderson, Temi Mwale, Jamal Edwards and Alastair Campbell.

• Culled from