Analysis of the second-row’s skill-set from head to toe by former England fly-half Stuart Barnes

England lock Maro Itoje analysed

If I was asked to name a World XV today, Maro Itoje would be my only automatic selection from the northern hemisphere. More than that, he would be one of the first selections on the team sheet.

There are taller locks in the world and there are certainly more physically intimidating ones. Just think about the impending British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa (hopefully), the land of the towering colossus.

Yet I cannot fail to reiterate what I have been writing for a number of years. This is the man who not only should – but will – lead the Lions.

This would place him in the pantheon of leading Lions locks. Willie John McBride is too far in the past to merit comparison but Martin Johnson and Paul O’Connell are within the same timelines.

Johnson had it all to prove as a rookie leader in South Africa in 1997 and did just that. The Irishman didn’t enjoy quite such a time of it against the twin power of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield in 2009.

High stakes: Paul O’Connell competes with Ryan Kankowski and Victor Matfield on the 2009 Lions tour (Getty Images)

The Saracen and England international has – in a technical sense – more of the Munster man about him. He is yet to stand alongside Johnson as a captain but everything I have seen suggests he has the equipment to match the one man as a leader and the other as a technician.

O’Connell’s display against England at Croke Park in 2007, a day loaded with symbolism, was one of the greatest 80 minutes I’ve seen from a European lock. Itoje touched similar heights in 2017’s second Test against New Zealand.

What you see, and what remains intangible, combine to mark Maro as someone with the potential to do something truly special; to attain greatness, starting with legendary status as a Lion.

Remember Johnson being beaten to that crucial late lineout by Justin Harrison in the deciding third Test in Sydney in 2001? Given Itoje’s capacity to get off the ground so rapidly, I don’t see him losing a lineout come the crucial moment.

And I don’t see him suffering the sort of physical grilling the Springbok pack put O’Connell through eight years later.

He is being compared with, in my view, the greatest Irish and greatest English locks of them all. Great leaders as well. He’s in lofty company. What some of you might read as hype today could become unarguable fact with the savage South Africa test awaiting him as a lock and, I reckon, a leader. He has what it takes.

England lock Maro Itoje analysed from head to toe

The brain

There is a difference between an intellect and rugby intelligence. I have known and played with many clever people who were, how shall we put it politely, rugby stupid and some far from academic sorts whose rugby brain was razor-sharp.

This School of Oriental and African Studies student is blessed with both. He reads the game well, while his intellectual faculties make him one of the most articulate men the game has seen in its pro era.

The mouth

Off the field the words are measured. He gives a mighty impressive press conference. On the field it can be used to more cynical effect.

From the Saracens school of wind-up, he gets to opponents but has the right word for a team-mate. Quite the opposite to the silent school of Johnson leadership, but Maro’s mouth can both inspire those that follow and infuriate opposition.

He is well spoken enough to enjoy the time of day with a Test-match referee too.

The arms

Probably the most obvious of his physical assets. At the lineout, they are one of the game’s most recognisable sights, especially putting maximum pressure on opposition ball.

But that’s not even the half of it. Come the melee of the contact zone, they are vice-like over the tackle area and powerful obstacles to a team trying to set themselves up for the familiar catch-and-drive lineout. Long, strong and extremely irritating to those he faces.

The stomach

The man must have immense core strength. He is a limpet over the ball yet lacks the cube shape of a master of the turnover like David Pocock.

Someone as lanky as this lock shouldn’t be able to win as many penalties and effect so many turnovers in an area dominated by sevens, sixes and hookers. Suffice to say, Itoje is an extremely effective Test blindside.

The thighs

The drive he brings to his game emanates from the thigh. His individual spring enables him to shift at the lineout in a way more cumbersome and less dynamic locks cannot.

His lineout strength is a combination of his sharp brain and his speed getting in the air and across the ground. And any second-row would also impress the importance of a pair of powerful thighs when locking the scrum.

Add these assets together and you have one of the potential greats. South Africa is the place, will it be the time for Maro Itoje to turn potential into reality?

This article originally appeared in the February 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.

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