Itoje’s Li­ons ex­pe­ri­ence can put the bite on world’s best

The dy­namic Eng­land lock plays on the edge but knows how to do bat­tle with the Ki­wis

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Total Rugby -


With all the talk of Maro Itoje as a ram­pag­ing war­rior who lives on the edge of the laws, you may for­get that his orig­i­nal sell­ing point was as an English for­ward with All Black skills.

There are three New Zealand na­tives in Eng­land’s start­ing lineup at Twick­en­ham to­day – 20 per cent of the team – but Itoje is the one who looks most like a son of rugby’s world No1s. The first meet­ing be­tween the na­tions since 2014 al­lows Itoje to build on his fine work in the drawn Li­ons tour of New Zealand, where he was the youngest mem­ber of War­ren Gat­land’s squad. Purists among us like to see him carry the flag not only for ag­gres­sion but agility and ath­leti­cism.

“Su­per Maro”, as ev­ery­one called him when he ar­rived on the scene, was seen as an un-english player – which is a com­pli­ment. He was an ex­pres­sive lock (if such a thing can ex­ist). But events have con­spired to di­rect him more to­wards the coal face of for­ward play as an en­forcer in the Mar­tin John­son mould. No bad place to be; but there is also a hope his skills can shine to­day.

As Char­lie Mor­gan re­ported for Tele­graph Sport, Itoje (be­low) has con­ceded 37 penal­ties since Ed­die Jones took charge. Only Dan Cole, with 38, has heard more whis­tles. Itoje was sent to the sin bin 16 min­utes into the 12-11 win against South Africa for killing the ball at the break­down near Eng­land’s try-line. He says: “Ev­ery ref­eree has slightly dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions, and the type of player I am, I need to be com­pet­i­tive and abra­sive, but I need to adapt to the sit­u­a­tion quicker than last week­end.” Itoje’s mo­bil­ity is such that he was bound to be used as a for­ager but New Zealand will test his de­ci­sion-mak­ing like no other op­po­nent. At least he has deep ex­pe­ri­ence of them, from the Li­ons tour, as well as con­fi­dence in his abil­ity to com­pete at their level. “It’s def­i­nitely a chal­lenge,” he says. “Rugby is part of the way of life over there. All the play­ers are very pas­sion­ate. They live, eat and breathe rugby – so when you go up against that, you’re go­ing up against very pas­sion­ate peo­ple. They’re very skilled. Very skilled play­ers, smart play­ers, and they’re very ac­cu­rate as well. “For­tu­nately enough for me, I’ve been part of that [Li­ons] tour. We spent six weeks in New Zealand, which is ob­vi­ously a very long time. Not only did we play New Zealand, we played pretty much all their Su­per Rugby teams, so it def­i­nitely gives you a flavour, and a taste, of how they play, and the dif­fer­ence be­tween the way they play down there and the way we play up here. I would say, down there they play a bit more run­ning rugby. Up in the north­ern hemi­sphere, we play a bit more of a struc­tured game. Their game is a bit more free-flow­ing.”

The last time Itoje saw the Kiwi swarm head­ing his way he was a cult fig­ure with the Li­ons’ tour­ing fans, the sub­ject of a song that rocked New Zealand’s Test are­nas. He says: “Yeah, it was cool. It was a cool mo­ment for me. For­tu­nately my fam­ily were there so they were able to en­joy that, too. But yeah, that is def­i­nitely one mem­ory that will stick with me for a while.”

There was a more im­por­tant legacy than the singing. The Li­ons tour helped de­mys­tify the world cham­pi­ons. Itoje says: “Spend­ing that amount of time there was very good for me. It was the sec­ond time I’d spent a long pe­riod of time in New Zealand af­ter the Un­der20s World Cup. It gave me a good

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