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
CHIEF SPORTS WRITER
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