Itoje plans to ‘influence’ and ‘energise’ second time around with the Lions

A breakout star four years ago, Saracens lock hails the return of tour captain Jones

As with Brian O'Driscoll in 2001, it's generally a positive indication of a player's contribution to a Lions tour when the travelling army of four nations in red decide to serenade him in song.

The sound of “Ohhhh, Mar-o I-to-je” reverberating around the Westpac Stadium and Eden Park both during the Test series and long into the night to the rhythm of Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes, became the soundtrack to the 2017 tour.

This seemed to amplify Maro Itoje’s many big moments, bringing the travelling supporters into every match in which he played. Despite a big contribution to the handsome win over the Maori All Blacks, Itoje was named on the bench for the first Test defeat, replacing Alun Wyn Jones in the 48th minute before the duo started the victorious second Test and drawn third Test together.

The expectation is that they will resume their partnership when Warren Gatland announces the British & Irish Lions team for the first Test tomorrow morning.

“He looks like a 24-year-old,” ventured Itoje of the Welsh warrior, a tad enviously. “I don’t know what recovery method he is using but somehow his hair’s growing back on the top of his head as well! So whatever recovery he’s using I need to get myself on it. Luckily my hair’s on point! He’s looking good.

Top dog

“He is a man of a lot of experience, he is the tour captain and has that kind of presence about him. It is great to have him back. He was desperate to be back and desperate to do whatever he can to help make the tour successful.”

Then 22 with a dozen caps to his name, Itoje is still reaching his prime at 26 and arrives here with 51 caps; if any player can go on to emulate Jones’s achievement of four successive tours it is assuredly Itoje, but he declined to suggest he might be the captain’s equal of even top dog now.

“I wouldn’t get into the semantics of that. What I know is that this time around I am much more experienced. First time around it was a whole new experience for me first time being a Lion, first time playing a Lions Test series, first time being in the Lions environment.

“Now I am a much more rounded player and I think I have a better understanding of the game and I probably have a bit more of an understanding about how I can influence the team in a positive way.

“I have a responsibility to try, depending on selection, to help the team go forward and I have a responsibility to try and energise the team. I probably know much more about my responsibility than I did four years ago.”

Like any confrontational lock, Itoje plays on the edge, and the concession of two penalties against the South Africa “A” side was not exactly out of character. But no Lions player did more to drag the tourists back into that match from 17-3 down than Itoje.

Securing promotion from the Championship with Saracens meant he was one of those who missed out on the full Jersey camp but Gatland and co have clearly been priming him for the series, with two starts in the first game on tour against the Sigma Lions and against South Africa “A” giving him a 10-day run-in to Saturday’s first Test.

Alas and alack, there will be no travelling supporters to hail Itoje in song in this series, nor even family and friends to meet.

Born and reared in Camden to Nigerian-born parents – his father, Efe, was a businessman, and his mother, Florence, a property trader – he went to a boarding school in St George's in Hertfordshire and won a scholarship to Harrow.

Bio-secure bubble

“It is all virtual, we are in the age of virtual reality,” he said of life on tour in a bio-secure bubble. “I am fortunate enough to have a great family, I am fortunate enough to have great parents and I speak to them relatively regularly.

"My parents, my family, we grew up with rugby not really being a factor within our household and now my parents travel the globe, Covid permitting, watching me play rugby. My dad might watch more rugby than me, he loves it. It is a shame they can't be here, they will be watching all the games from Nigeria.

Itoje’s exploits are, he says, making a modest impression in the country of his roots. “Rugby is not really a thing in Nigeria. I would be surprised if there is any [support from there]. My uncle actually texted me the other day, I am planning to go to Nigeria afterwards, and he said I should bring him a black Lions jersey. He said he likes that one.

“Ironically, the last time I was in Nigeria, in 2018, as I was driving past I saw this little boy running on the road with a Lions training top on. I was like ‘where the hell did this boy get this from’. I am not too sure if he knows exactly what it is but at least the message is travelling.”

His background and education have helped to make him bi-lingual, and could be beneficial on Saturday.

“I can speak Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa and English – I think I will be all right.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times