Maro Itoje has started off the season as he finished the last, topping the statistics charts and setting an example. Just how far can his potential take him?
By Alex Shaw
Everyone in the rugby world knows the name Maro Itoje. The 21-year-old has been riding the crest of a wave that has grown, exponentially, over the last few years and shows no signs of abating.
Almost unbelievably, Saracens’ victory over Exeter Chiefs this past weekend extended Itoje’s win streak (in games he’s started) for club and country to 28 games. Granted, he’s a part of two very talented sides in Saracens and England, but a streak like that is noteworthy because no one else can match those figures.
It’s worth pausing for a moment and just taking stock of what Itoje has achieved over the last couple of years and what makes him such a special player, not to mention one that England will need to build around if they are to unseat New Zealand as rugby’s number one team.
Four years ago. Itoje was playing for Harrow, Saracens Academy and England U18s, already distinguishing himself as anything but your run of the mill, talented rugby prospect.
Two years ago. The lock captained England U20s to their second ever Junior World Championship, lifting the trophy in New Zealand. He also made his debut for Saracens’ senior team that year, featuring as a 19-year-old in both the Anglo-Welsh Cup and Aviva Premiership.
One year ago. Having been called up to the England Saxons, Itoje shows all of his leadership skills, bossing around seasoned internationals as he helped drive the Saxons to victory over the Irish Wolfhounds. He also wins his first Premiership title but suffers heartache in the Champions Cup final.
This year. Itoje made his England debut, won both the Premiership and European Rugby Champions Cup with Saracens and has extended his win streak to 28 games, with the calibre of performances that suggest it’s not likely to end anytime soon.
In fact, he even picked up man of the match awards in the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final of the Champions Cup, to illustrate just how integral he is to Saracens in the run to their first ever top tier European title.
Currently sitting in the Itoje trophy cabinet, and again, let’s just stress that the man is still only 21, are two Premiership titles, one Champions Cup, one Six Nations Grand Slam (with accompanying Calcutta Cup, Millennium Cup and of course Triple Crown), one Cook Cup (or three if you count the individual games versus Australia, rather than the series) – pause for breath – one Anglo-Welsh Cup, one Aviva A League title, a Southern Conference Academy League title and a Premiership runners-up medal.
The man has become a lightning rod for everything positive that is going on with Saracens and England at the moment and whilst that should not detract from the contributions of any number of other excellent players involved in both teams, he is due every accolade coming his way.
So, what actually is it that distinguishes Itoje from any other number of talented players emerging on the rugby scene?
Firstly, it’s his leadership. It’s a skill that can be honed or refined as you garner more experience and develop as a person both on and off the field, but much of it is innate. He led the England U20s and Saracens A sides to their triumphs, whilst also playing clear leadership roles for both the Saracens and England senior sides over the last one to two years.
Then you have his considerable physical ability. He runs faster, jumps higher and hits harder than a man of his size should be able to and fully fits the mould of the prototype, ‘physical freak’ that are coveted in modern second rows. He’s not led the transformation – the likes of Iain Henderson, Courtney Lawes and Eben Etzebeth came first – but you’d argue he’s been the best.
Finally, there’s his technique. For a man with such remarkable physical gifts, you could excuse him relying on them and not being the most technical footballer, but nothing could be further from the truth with Itoje. Even at 6ft 5in, he is a devil at the breakdown, his lineout work is exemplary, particularly his work disrupting opposition throws, and he has an uncanny ability to dislodge the ball when tackling.
He doesn’t just wreck opposition lineouts because he can jump high, he reads what the opposition are going to do and then beats them to it. He doesn’t force knock-ons solely because he hits hard, he times his tackles to perfection, wrapping his outside arm on or very near to the ball just as he makes contact, often separating it from the carrier.
To have these three facets of your game working in harmony and at such a high level at any age would be worthy of praise, but to have it in place by the time you’re 21? Well, that’s pretty special. He’s also fitting in a degree in politics in his spare time, just to make his on-field achievements all the more impressive.
It would be understandable if those outside of the Saracens and England (and British and Irish come next year) bubbles are growing tired of the eulogising heading this man’s way of late, such has been the frequency and voracious nature of it, but there is simply no denying his ability, nor his potential.
He is now surely second only in line to Dylan Hartley as England captain and is as an integral part of that side as anyone. Not since Jonny Wilkinson has England seen a talent of this level join the team and not since Martin Johnson has a natural-born leader of such raw potential emerged.
Itoje’s win streak will be challenged by the likes of Northampton Saints and Harlequins in the coming weeks and if he and Saracens can see them off, it won’t be long before the Springboks, Pumas and Wallabies come to town, determined to knock him and England off their current perch.
The British and Irish Lions travel to New Zealand next summer and this looks to be the next great challenge Itoje will face. The All Blacks are overwhelming favourites and rightfully so, but you can put me down for a tenner on the Lions if Itoje can keep this streak going.