Maro Itoje promises to be Ireland’s worst nightmare

England prodigy is captain-material and will seek to tick off Dublin on way to greatness

Maro Itoje was the second best shot-putting schoolboy in England. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Maro Itoje was the second best shot-putting schoolboy in England. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

There comes a time when a boy must become a man

– extract from a poem by Maro Itoje

Lebron James is an astronomical comparison that nobody deserves. But like the NBA superstar, there is no set position for Maro Itoje. Domination is the only expectation.  

That he has become a flanker like Richard Hill is more high praise, but Stuart Mitchell, Itoje’s first rugby coach, saw that type of player in the making.

“When there was a ruck or a maul, he would just pop up with the ball. Half the time you would scratch your head asking, ‘How did he do that?’ It was all levers, body weight and laser-like focus on the ball that allowed him to do that.”

This season there has also been a morphing into Martin Johnson. Maybe it followed the occasional lunches they had. That edge was the only missing ingredient in 2016. But some of his newly discovered antagonistic behaviour is necessary to become the alpha male in Northern Hemisphere rugby.  

“Where are your scars?” Eddie Jones asked in January 2016 but even the Svengali Australian has been unable to dampen the hype. 

“Everyone has got mongrel. Sometimes circumstances bring it out, sometimes team environment brings it out, or some inspirational person. So, Itoje has got it, he has just got to find it. I want this kid to play 70, 80 Tests; he’s good enough. But I want him to earn his stripes.

“When he has played a massive game for England, won lineouts, won a significant Test match, I’ll let you talk to him all week, Monday to Friday, when he deserves some media exposure. He doesn’t deserve media exposure. He has done nothing. Nothing.”

That was before he did everything. Yet Jones continues to shield his prized possession, despite Itoje, in just over a year, becoming a European champion with Saracens, along with back-to-back Six Nations titles that have him nailed on to tour with the Lions this summer. 

And he will captain England.

Density

“We don’t have the density to win a World Cup in terms of leaders,” Jones said on Thursday. “But we are getting there.”

Make no mistake, Maro Itoje is coming to conquer Dublin. All the immortal English forwards have ticked off Lansdowne Road on their way to greatness. Itoje has won Test matches in Paris, Cardiff, Australia and led the under-20s to a World Cup title in New Zealand, when they stormed past Garry Ringrose’s Ireland in the semis.

The rise of this freakish 22-year-old hybrid lock/flanker appears unstoppable. Just ask John Barclay. This moveable man mountain of Nigerian heritage – born and initially raised in Camden before finishing his secondary education at the prestigious Harrow boarding school – tortured the Scotland captain last Saturday at Twickenham.

There was good reason. John Barclay latches himself on opposition ball as well as anyone. Itoje not only eradicated that threat, he dominated the 30-year-old and, along with Joe Launchbury, his even bigger locking partner (Itoje wears six but packs down at second row), they decimated Scotland’s driving maul.

He also exacerbated the slightest of disagreements, seeking a Scotsman able or willing to match him. None came.  

“I have my own vision for myself,” Itoje has said, “and I know what I want to do and where I want to go. That is what I hold myself to.”

Intellect

There comes a time when anger fills your heart – extract from a poem by Maro Itoje.

He regrets revealing a love of poetry, but his intellect is unmistakeable and in current evidence by his reading for a politics degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies in Bloomsbury, London.

At least one Irish player will get the Barclay treatment this evening. Even money says Seán O’Brien. Eradicate Ireland’s best spoiler and the road to freedom will open for others.

“The exciting thing is just how much better than most other players he is going to end up being. That is frightening,” said Andy Holloway in The Telegraph.

The Old Albanians coach had Itoje on loan for six games in 2013/14, “With a lot of young players, you see the talent and the potential on the pitch, but there is always something which you think will hold them back. Jonny was the only guy I could not see that Achilles’ heel with and I had not seen anyone like that since until I saw Maro.”

A Wilkinson comparison as well. Itoje does regularly appear at first receiver, seeking to carry into hard shoulders, and takes enormous punishment as a decoy runner (see the Danny Care try in the 84th minute at Twickenham last week). England also deploys his 6 foot 6 inch, 116 kilogram frame on the right wing (see minute two at Twickenham).  

The climb to world domination – because that is the direct path of this English team with Itoje at their core – is assisted by a background in basketball and he was the second best shot-putting schoolboy in England.

“The best left-hand side lock in the world is [Eben] Etzebeth,” Jones stated. “[Itoje] can be a more athletic version of Etzebeth. He has got better jumping skills than Etzebeth but he has got that mongrel in his carry and his tackle. If Itoje can develop that, he will be world-class as left-side lock. And could play six at a pinch.”

Three ultra-mobile giants

When Saracens team-mate George Kruis went down injured, a rejuvenated Courtney Lawes returned alongside Launchbury with Itoje shifted to blindside. Jones utilises all three ultra-mobile giants in a ball-carrying pincer movement. They annihilate teams in defence.  

“One of his great qualities is he is very open to listening,” said Hill, the current England manager, and Itoje’s mentor at Saracens. “Hopefully that will be something that sets him apart in terms of the quality of his leadership.”

Clearly, a captain is bubbling beneath the surface. Despite Itoje clearly knowing his own mind, Jones has kept him away from the regular media humdrum during these successful Six Nations campaigns.

“I want Itoje to be a great rugby player and I don’t want him built up to be a headline before he’s a headline,” said Jones. “I’m taking a duty of care with him.”

Maybe the coach already knows Itoje will captain England at the 2019 World Cup – or immediately after – so he’s putting the foundations in place for a supreme leader to rise.

“I have my own vision for myself,” Itoje has said, “and I know what I want to do and where I want to go. That is what I hold myself to.”

Of course he is leading already. Against Italy, when senior English players were flummoxed by Brendan Venter’s offside line tactic, Maro was already a step ahead. When James Haskell approached Romain Poite for clarification about how to create a ruck, Itoje can be seen yelling from the front of the lineout.

“I cannot say,” Poite replied. “I am the referee, I am not a coach.”

“Hask, Hask,” Itoje can be heard again as off mic the youngest member of the English pack filled the others in. Up the guts they went.

Worst nightmare

There comes a time when one must stand up and lead – extract from a poem by Maro Itoje

Johnson, Hill, Wilkinson revisited (and a nod to rugby’s version of Lebron), Ireland’s worst nightmare is real.

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