Itoje back to his best as Saracens put Harlequins to the sword
After a lengthy absence, Maro Itoje – the try-scoring, tackle-breaking, backslapping version – returned to action yesterday to inject a frisson of energy into an otherwise nondescript Saracens victory over Harlequins.
Itoje was one of 11 internationals, incouple cluding nine from England, who came straight into the Saracens and Harlequins squads off the back a of a gruelling NatWest Six Nations campaign. No one had a greater point to prove than Itoje, who celebrated scoring his first Aviva Premiership try of the season by pretending to take a quick nap.
Even if he denied it afterwards, that seemed to be a pointed remark on comments regarding his lack of energy during a disappointing England campaign.
Here the 23-year-old rediscovered a spring in his step and a bite in his tackle. His personality also seemed to be transformed. Back came the raucous celebrations of turnovers and the slaps on the backsides of team-mates.
“I am just happy to be back at the club,” Itoje said. “I have had a tough of weeks and have come back into a loving environment.” Read into that what you will regarding the state of the England camp.
“Sometimes when people tell you that you look tired then you can feel tired,” Mark McCall, the Saracens director of rugby, said. “Maro is not that kind of individual. I think he proved that today. Maro was brilliant. He looked like he was full of energy, full of life. He was deservedly man of the match and that will give him a lot of confidence going into next weekend.”
It is Leinster who lie in wait on Sunday in a Champions Cup quarter-final that will be a partial rerun of Ireland’s Grand Slam victory over England at Twickenham. Leinster opted to give their Ireland starters the week off while McCall felt it was more beneficial to reintegrate his internationals.
Fly-half Owen Farrell (quad) and lock George Kruis (back) remain touch and go, while No 8 Billy Vunipola is almost certainly out. Overall, McCall was fairly satisfied with the victory that lifts them above Wasps into second.
“There’s enough for us to hang our hats on,” McCall said. “We need to play much, much better next weekend. I know we can and I know we will.”
In that much he is right. It was not a vintage performance, but his assessment that “it wasn’t a great match” was putting it mildly.
The ennui that has enveloped West Ham at the London Stadium also engulfed Saracens and Harlequins. Any atmosphere was sucked away by nearly 15 minutes of stoppages, as well as the environs of the most soulless stadium in modern sport. The attendance was given more than 55,000, which would seem to be an estimation from the Donald Trump school of crowd sizes. Saracens cruised most of this game somewhere between first and second gear, occasionally raising the pace when they needed to ease past Quins. That was understandable given their trip to Dublin, but the fact they were able to conserve their energy is an indictment of another middling Harlequins performance. Yet again John Kingston’s team performed as less than the sum of their considerable parts. There were flashes of decent stuff. Prop Kyle Sinckler was at the heart of a dominant scrum and
carried ferociously. Joe Marchant dis- played some fabulous dancing feet in midfield. So too did Marcus Smith, a first-half replacement for Demetri Catrakilis, but that was counterbalanced by some suspect decision-making.
Other than that they never lived looked like a cohesive unit. For a team with so much attacking talent, they only periodically threatened the Saracens 22, scoring their only try when James Horwill picked a great line from close range.
Down by 10 points, they were granted a lifeline when Saracens replacement Max Malins was sin-binned with 10 minutes to go, but they ended up losing that period 3-0 to an Alex Lozowski penalty.
With Champions Cup qualification now out of the equation, they have nothing left to play for this season. As a club they have been flatlining for so long that it is a surprise no one has announced a time of death.
Lozowski kicked 14 points in an allround impressive display that suggests Farrell’s potential absence in Dublin would not be as disastrous as first seemed. His boot kept Saracens ticking but crucial blows were struck in the first half by Liam Williams and Itoje.
Williams’s try was instigated by a stolen line-out and a break by Sean Maitland, the other Saracens wing, through Sinckler’s attempted tackle in midfield. The ball was spread wide through Brad Barritt, Marcelo Bosch and Alex Goode, who timed his pass perfectly to put the Wales full-back over. There was more sloppy work in the build-up to the second try as Itoje burst through James Chisholm’s tackle.
“They were two soft tries,” Kingston said. “You lose a line-out on the halfway line and then you can find yourself conceding a try 10 seconds later after one phase. That shouldn’t happen.”
Playmaker: Alex Lozowksi kicked 14 points for Saracens in a strong all-round display
Time for a nap: Saracens lock Maro Itoje crosses for his side’s second try in the victory over Harlequins (left), and then celebrates by pretending to have a snooze (below). The London Stadium played host to the Aviva Premiership match, but the lack of...