Super Maro set to be England’s shining light – and rugby’s blazing superstar
With players out due to injury or Covid, Eddie Jones will need the best lock on the planet
Maro Itoje of England catches the ball during their Autumn Nations Cup Final against France at Twickenham on December 6th, 2020. Photograph: David Rogers/RFU Collection via Getty Images
“Make sure you have a chat with someone you haven’t spoken to in the team,” was how Eddie Jones, the England head coach, finished last week’s highly unusual address to the players from a quarantined hotel room after forwards coach Matt Proudfoot tested positive for Covid-19. “One of the new guys or one of the guys you might have had a bit of argy-bargy with in a club game. So you take the team forward, boys.”
In the aftermath of Jones’s words, Oghenemaro Itoje could easily have been inundated with approaches from all the non-Saracens players.
The muscular Adonis comes across as considerate and highly intelligent – off the field. On it he is vicious and athletically superior to almost every other lock on the planet.
If Itoje hasn’t already become the outstanding player in the game, the next few weeks should confirm as much.
Just ask James Ryan. The pair have been compared – same position, same leadership qualities at underage, similar educational interest in politics – ever since Ryan burst on the scene, although Itoje is 21 months older than the Dubliner, and appears to only be competing with himself.
In their most recent duel at Twickenham last November, Ryan and Caelan Doris competed in the same universe as their English counterparts. Even still, Itoje appeared streets ahead of everyone. Backing up a long-held tradition of menacing English locks, the Camden native seemed to be hunting Ryan.
The 24-year-old kept carrying into the void – out of sheer stubbornness in the face of certain defeat – and Itoje kept making him pay.
Super Maro is the shining light in an England camp ravaged by injury and Covid-related absences. It has forced Jones to flood his ranks with young talent like Ollie Lawrence at inside centre as Owen Farrell leads from outhalf, with George Ford named as a “finisher”.
Scotland will see an opportunity for a team shorn of Sam Underhill, Manu Tuilagi and Mako Vunipola – the best 7, 12 and 1 in the world – but the next men up, especially Ellis Genge at loosehead, showcase a frightening strength in depth.
If anyone is going to be the crossover figure, rugby’s first global star since Jonah Lomu, he who cracks America, it will be Maro Itoje
There is a valid argument that Itoje, Farrell, Billy Vunipola and Jamie George are undercooked after Saracens’ relegation for financial mismanagement denied them any club games, but the flip side of that view is they come in fresh.
“I’ll be fine,” Itoje told the Daily Mail. “My body is hardened to play, ready to go. And England training isn’t a walk in the park.”
It would be a shock if he underperformed alongside Exeter’s towering Jonny Hill in what currently looks like the Lions partnership to face the Springboks. Ryan has time to rewrite that working theory, but the expectation is that Itoje will keep improving and by him doing so, the game itself will be enhanced.
Unlike your average rugby star, Itoje has decided to embrace fame and become a transformative figure during lockdown by putting his name to a project that gets laptops to children from low-income families.
Roc Nation – Jay-Z’s management company, which already has a solid investment in the Natal Sharks – has secured Itoje as its latest client. Next stop, the stratosphere.
Unlike the boring, self-effacing Irish attitude to media and refusal to speak about social issues, Itoje has warmed to the responsibility that comes with being the most influential player in the UK.
If anyone is going to be the crossover figure, rugby’s first global star since Jonah Lomu, he who cracks America, it will be Maro Itoje.
He has the charisma and, so far, it seems that the Danny Cipriani pitfalls of presuming superstardom is the same as celebrity will not be repeated.
Despite being the face of his sport, Maro has managed to retain a clear line of sight. “I just want to play for England. I want to win with England and I think we have some hugely intelligent players who make the right decisions at the right times.”
England (v Scotland)
15. Elliot Daly (Saracens, 47 caps)
14. Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby, 46 caps)
13. Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs, 34 caps)
12. Ollie Lawrence (Worcester Warriors, 3 caps)
11. Jonny May (Gloucester Rugby, 61 caps)
10. Owen Farrell (C) (Saracens, 88 caps)
9. Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers, 104 caps)
1. Ellis Genge (Leicester Tigers, 23 caps)
2. Jamie George (Saracens, 54 caps)
3. Will Stuart (Bath Rugby, 8 caps)
4. Maro Itoje (Saracens, 43 caps)
5. Jonny Hill (Exeter Chiefs, 4 caps)
6. Mark Wilson (Newcastle Falcons, 19 caps)
7. Tom Curry (Sale Sharks, 28 caps)
8. Billy Vunipola (Saracens, 56 caps)
16. Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs, 26 caps)
17. Beno Obano (Bath Rugby, uncapped)
18. Harry Williams (Exeter Chiefs, 18 caps)
19. Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints, 85 caps)
20. Ben Earl (Bristol Bears, 8 caps)
21. Dan Robson (Wasps, 7 caps)
22. George Ford (Leicester Tigers, 72 caps)
23. Max Malins (Bristol Bears, 3 caps)