Though Saracens went down 13-9 to Clermont in Saint-Étienne, 20 year-old Maro Itoje put in an inspiring performance. We analyse his efforts here.
European Champions Cup analysis: Maro Itoje, Saracens
The re-signing of a 20 year-old academy graduate rarely registers on the public consciousness. When news of Maro itoje’s “long-term” deal at Saracens broke a week ago though, there was something of stir.
Of course, that was because of the personnel in question. Frankly, there is little this young man cannot do. As evidenced by last summer’s Junior World Championship and a victorious LV= Cup campaign, Itoje is a captain accustomed to lifting trophies.
An odd Aviva Premiership outing, plus one outstanding replacement appearance for England Saxons in Cork in January, have underlined his supreme promise at lock. Off the field, he is incredibly humble, refreshingly articulate and even writes the odd stanza of poetry.
Less surprising was the fact that this six foot, five inch specimen met the mighty challenge and excelled, following the trend of an immensely eye-catching career thus far.
Indeed, Itoje’s authoritative, influential display was a significant positive for Saracens fans to take from an agonising 13-9 defeat.
The World Cup will come too soon from him, but Itoje will surely possess Test caps – and perhaps even have toured New Zealand with the British & Irish Lions – before the next contract negotiations come around.
Here is how he mixed it with the Top 14 heavyweights.
Strong at set-piece
Against such a domineering, powerful outfit as Clermont, scrum and lineout were always going to be integral, and the added ballast offered by Itoje from the back row certainly aided tighthead prop Petrus du Plessis.
Take two early scrums. Firstly, this one, which brought Saracens a penalty:
Though the infringement actually comes as Clermont tighthead Davit Zirakashvili collapses on the opposite side, a look at Itoje’s body position and spine curvature from a reverse angle shows how much strain the sizeable youngster is offering to an ‘eight man shove’ – something England forwards coach Graham Rowntree is fond of:
Another cohesive Saracens push minutes later completely splintered the Clermont set-piece:
From this screenshot, we see intense pressure coming through the right-hand side of the Saracens scrum through du Plessis via George Kruis (right circle) and Itoje (left circle, obscured by Julien Bardy):
Referee George Clancy did not penalise the French side on this occasion. However, Itoje managed to disrupt Clermont’s lineout ball from very early on:
Peering over the shoulder of hooker Benjamin Kayser as he prepares to throw in, we get a great insight. Pointing across, Itoje has identified Julien Bonnaire as the jumper:
Rather than competing in the air, he waits until the moment his man hits the ground before shepherding the Clermont maul towards the touchline:
If this demonstrated technical aptitude, Itoje also showed alertness and rapid reactions. In the second half, there was a rather messier Clermont set-piece.
This time, he sprints through to shackle Damien Chouly, hauling the France international down behind the gain-line from an errant tap-back:
Chouly squeezed Saracens’ lineout himself and managed a couple of steals. In between those though, Itoje helped to tick things over, whether going up himself…
…or – as was often the case – lifting a teammate. In this case, Jim Hamilton is thrown skyward:
In fact, three Saracens jumpers work together neatly in this instance. First, Kruis sashays from back to front to distract Clermont…
…before Itoje steps into the space and lifts Hamilton with the help of Jacques Burger:
Proactive defence and subtle spoiling
Saracens knew it would require gargantuan industry to get them anywhere near the finish line. Itoje absolutely played his part in that regard, hurling his body into every collision.
Befitting a man in the midst of a university degree, he was also clever and calculated about his contributions. Take this sequence in the second period as Clermont clunk ominously into their mechanical phase-play patterns:
The tackle on Wesley Fofana as the centre attempts a trademark arc is impressive in itself. If we rewind slightly though, we can appreciate how Itoje stays calm, reads the situation and communicates accordingly.
Realising Saracens are short on his side as Clermont steam around the corner, he beckons teammate Schalk Brits out of the breakdown and across:
Saracens are still down on numbers, but Itoje rescues the potential danger with line-speed, seeking out first-receiver Fofana and closing him down:
At this point, sheer work ethic comes in. Having made the tackle, Itoje gets to his feet:
This serves two purposes. First, the Clermont support is impeded cannot generate the quick ball they would like.
Second, Itoje is back in the game. When Kruis cuts down Thomas Domingo on the next phase, he can get over the ball, joining forces with Hamilton to win a penalty:
Clearly, energy and intelligence form a potent blend.
Both attributes were in play later too, as Itoje’s presence coerced Morgan Parra into an elementary mistake:
Stalking the scrum-half around the ruck, Itoje moves from open-side to blind-side guard as Parra shapes to kick off his favoured left boot:
Launching his frame towards the ball, Itoje so nearly pulls off the charge-down. And while Parra does get his kick away, he is evidently perturbed:
Eyeline obscured, Parra sends the ball out on the full and Itoje is rewarded for his superman-style exploits.
Excellent link man
As we have already seen, Itoje is not afraid to knuckle down to do some unheralded, off-the-ball graft. Such an attitude extends to attack as well.
Watch how he helps out Hamilton here by leaching on as the Scotland second row carries:
Coming around the corner to offer himself to Richard Wigglesworth as a runner, Itoje does not give up as the scrum-half selects another pass:
Instead, he binds onto the receiver, while another referee might have interpreted this as obstruction, he adds weight to Hamilton’s charge against two Clermont front-rowers:
Ever mindful of the team cause, Itoje retains his balance and guards the ball as Wigglesworth sweeps around:
These seemingly simple plays keep teams ticking along and eventually add up to monumental individual performances.
Needless to say, there were so many from Itoje in Saint-Étienne, from this decoy line that created space for Mako Vunipola…
…to this swivelling carry around the fringes that maintained momentum after Jamie George cleared up a loose ball…
…plus a skilful offload from the floor here as Clermont’s kick-chase comes through in intimidating fashion:
Itoje has the dexterity and know-how to take on the role of first-receiver in a screen pattern too, much the same as Brodie Retallick does so effectively for the All Blacks:
Stationed in midfield as a pivot with fellow forwards on either side, Itoje can either truck up or pull a pass behind him to the second wave of Saracens attackers, as dictated by the playmakers on the park:
In this case, Charlie Hodgson tells Itoje to hand him the ball and in turn hits the elder Vunipola:
Reinforcing his appetite for hard yakka, Itoje resources the ensuing ruck – another job ticked off.
Amid a vast amount of unglamorous stuff, there was one piece of play fit for Hollywood.
Stationed in backfield, Itoje exploded onto this high ball and adopted a passable bulldozer impression:
Beating Nick Abendanon before stepping away from Sebastien Vahaamahina and bumping Bardy, Itoje showcases some stunning ability.
Rather than those of a timid 20 year-old, these are the actions of a big-game performer embracing a sizeable occasion and thriving. Tellingly, McCall kept him on for the whole 80 minutes, shifting him to lock as Hamilton and Burger were replaced by Kelly Brown and Jackson Wray.
It is just as well Maro Itoje does not suffer from stage fright. He is set for an entire career under the brightest spotlight.