Itoje back to his best as Sara­cens put Har­lequins to the sword

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby Union - Daniel Schofield at the Lon­don Sta­dium

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...

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