Maro Itoje was spiky and destructive for England Saxons on Friday evening in Cork, but he was also intelligent and resourceful in attack. We analyse his role in the visitors' 18-9 win over Ireland Wolfhounds.
“Joy and jubilation” – those were the words uttered by Maro Itoje when the England Under 20 skipper was asked to articulate his thoughts at the final whistle of last summer’s Junior World Championship final.
With due respect to all sportspeople, the level of eloquence was far above that of an average post-match interview. Then again, Itoje could never be described as average.
The first thing that disarms you is an engaging but totally humble manner, quickly followed by the sheer size of this special 20 year-old. Standing six foot four, he is filling out rapidly and has already broken the 18 stone barrier without losing much in the way of awesome athleticism.
Strong enough represent his country at shot put and intelligent enough to be reading politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, the Saracen exudes a palpable aura. Future England captain, British and Irish Lion in 2017, World Cup bolter even – no goal seems too farfetched.
Replacing a groggy James Gaskell 15 minutes into the action at Irish Independent Park on Friday evening, Itoje went about reinforcing the opinions of his many admirers. Alongside the simply monstrous Dave Ewers – who stormed through a nine-carry, 19-tackle performance – he made things extremely awkward for an experienced Ireland Wolfhounds pack.
Itoje put in a huge defensive shift for the Saxons, encompassing 14 tackles and plenty of disruption including one first-half ruck turnover. But here is a closer look at his role in the two tries that secured a gritty, grafting 18-9 win for Jon Callard’s side.
Henry Slade slices over
Unfamiliar combinations across both sides and a whistle-happy approach from Welsh referee Nigel Hennessy at the breakdown made for a fairly grim first quarter, and the all-consuming scrappiness extended to set-piece. Despite possessing a powerful scrummaging unit, the Saxons were forced to live off untidy ball. Even so, they managed to recover here to launch the attack that eventually saw Henry Slade open the scoring:
Exeter Chiefs No 8 Thomas Waldrom was excellent all game and this is a clean-up operation from the base, but the energy of Itoje is vital. Just seven minutes after coming on, he first leaches onto the carrier and then blows over the ruck as Waldrom hits the deck. As the screenshot shows, he specifically targets Ulsterman Iain Henderson – a large, effective presence on the deck:
This allows scrum-half and skipper Lee Dickson to inject verve from a rather stagnated situation and the Saxons can probe out wide on the right. When they come back to the left, Itoje is subtly important once more:
The Saxons click into their structure here, Sam Burgess finding Slade with neat pulled-back pass and Chris Pennell then exploiting some space. But it is far from an off-the-cuff move. Watch Itoje identify himself in the primary wave as Dickson before looks to hit Burgess at first-receiver:
Two purposes are served here. Primarily, Burgess has a forward pod to play off and can either take the option of hitting them up or cutting them out to a second distributor behind. Secondly though, the opposition are also made aware of some big midfield runners.
Isolating the moment Burgess releases the ball, we can see how Itoje’s presence holds the Wolfhounds line:
From here, with Saxons over the gain-line, the former Harrow School student really begins to demonstrate his intuition. He does not rush to a ruck where he is not needed. Instead, he trusts teammates to secure possession so he can take up another role in the attack. This is called breakdown resourcefulness:
Again, Itoje communicates to Dickson with a hand gesture, bringing clarity to the pattern. He does not receive the pass but smashes the ruck to ensure quick ball from Rob Webber‘s carry. He could probably keep his balance slightly better, but the aim – to get rid of tackle-jackal supremo Sean O’Brien– is met. The Saxons can come around the corner from the next phase:
This time Burgess barrels on, and the Wolfhounds envelop him. Tracking Itoje (circled in white), we can see how he makes the late decision to ‘double ruck’, hitting a second consecutive breakdown just to get beyond the ball and ensure nobody can come through onto Dickson:
After Waldrom and Ewers combine, the Wolfhounds are stretched to breaking point thanks to Elliot Daly’s burst and Slade darts in:
Having been involved to varying degrees in four of eight phases up to this point– an impressive ratio for a lock in mid-range attack– Itoje helps finish the job. Making his way to this wide ruck, he curves slightly to occupy the fringe defence. It works perfectly. Scrambling back, Keith Earls and Jack McGrath are both occupied, as you can see by the direction of their shoulders:
Slade can sneak in with a cute angle to the left of his second-row’s decoy line. An hour later, Itoje was instrumental in the Saxons’ match-clinching try too.
Christian Wade wings in
Tellingly, the game’s only other five-pointer came from the foundation of improvised ball-retention at set-piece, this time a lineout. In windy conditions, Saxons had lost six of 11 throws up to this point.
As he had been from the earlier scrum, Waldrom instigates the rescue act by calling and claiming a flat throw, taking the elements out of the equation and setting up a well-organised, forceful maul while the Wolfhounds are slightly unaware. Carl Fearns breaks away at the perfect time and the movement gathers momentum:
Itoje is such an integral cog in this maul, immediately from the point Waldrom collects Luke Cowan-Dickie‘s throw. He wastes no time in moving from the back of the lineout to latch on:
Quickly, he provides go-forward and gets in an excellent body position to propel the maul towards the line:
As the Saxons forwards creep over the 22, Wolfhounds No 8 Jack Conan begins an impressive attempt at fighting through the maul. However, Itoje assesses the situation, turns his back and peels Conan’s arms away to reduce his threat:
This action creates uncertainty among the Wolfhounds defence, and more players flood through onto Itoje under the misapprehension that he is on the ball:
Pushing Itoje towards the touchline, the Wolfhounds inadvertently create a favourable angle for Fearns to break off and head towards the posts. On the next phase, Ewers is unleashed again and Itoje races around the corner:
His carry is oustanding, simply outmuscling two challengers and almost getting within reach of the whitewash. When Itoje is finally brought down, he places the back in a textbook manner:
Although mainly placed on half-backs, game management is a responsibility shared across each member of any team. A man who has captained just about every side he has played for coming up through the ranks, including Saracens Storm in their victorious Aviva A League campaign this season, Itoje retains composure.
Aware that possession is paramount, he walks back from the floor into the guard position on the defensive side, subtly shielding scrum-half Joe Simpson from the Wolfhounds fringe tacklers:
The Saxons go right, executing another punchy phase off Fearns. From here, Itoje – resourcing himself well again – is in an excellent position to hit the last rugby of the game, winning the ball back for Slade to release Christian Wade:
Joe Launchbury was brought into Stuart Lancaster’s senior camp prior to the 2012 South Africa tour just weeks before his 21st birthday. Itoje only exited his teens in October.
On Friday night, Callard would not say whether the second-row tyro would be fast-tracked into England’s Six Nations or World Cup plans. He did call Itoje “sensational” though. That is a fairly good place to start.