By Mitch Phillips
TOKYO (Reuters) – Five years ago Maro Itoje captained England to the Junior Rugby World Cup title. On Saturday, five days after turning 25, he could be part of a team winning the real thing – and what he has achieved in between is nothing short of astonishing.
In 2016, England coach Eddie Jones defied the critics to include Itoje, who was tearing up trees for Saracens, in his England team for the Six Nations, memorably comparing him to the most mundane of 1970s family cars.
“Maro is a young kid who has a good head on his shoulders,” he said. “He’s like a Vauxhall Viva now. We want to make him into a BMW. He’s got a lot of work to do but he’s got potential.”
And some potential. Weeks later, as a 21-year-old winning his third cap, Itoje was named man of the match in England’s Six Nations win over Wales, and 16 months after that he earned the same honour after the British and Irish Lions’ famous second-test victory over New Zealand in Wellington.
His record is astounding for a player who in sporting terms should still not yet be at his peak but already has a strong claim to be the best lock in the world.
It is all the more impressive considering it might never have happened: In his younger years Itoje once contemplated a career in athletics, only for some frustrating schoolboy shot-put defeats to combine with a burgeoning rugby talent to change his path.
As well as the 2014 U-20 World Cup, Itoje also captained England to the U-20s Six Nations title and was named his country’s man of the tournament and English rugby’s Players’ Young Player of the Year.
Jones was not denying the talent when he tried to hold him back, but he wanted to be sure the youngster was ready to deal with the baggage that would come with it.
“As long as he doesn’t get too far ahead of himself, he’s going to be a wonderful player,” the coach said, adding that he was surely too pretty to be a test lock and needed a few more scars.
Itoje kept going, showing his versatility by often packing down on the flank for England as the honours rolled in: Three Lions caps in a shared series against the All Blacks, two Six Nations championships including a Grand Slam, three European Cups, four English Premiership titles with Saracens, and a European Player of the Year award.
All those big games and big wins fuel confidence, or what some on the wrong side of it might call arrogance, but Itoje is matter of fact when discussing his teams’ prospects.
Ahead of the game against New Zealand, who England had beaten once in 16 attempts, he said that he had learned “how to get to them” on the Lions tour.
“They are a very good team and they have the capacity to do some very dangerous things,” he said. “But I still believe that if we play our best rugby, we will win.”
And England did, with Itoje delivering an all-round display that earned him another MoM award and left commentators struggling to describe just how he managed to extend his telescopic arm up, over, round and through seemingly every All Black maul.
“Huge physicality, invaluable steals on the floor, immovable at the ruck, marauding legally through mauls – a nuisance from start to finish,” England’s former coach Clive Woodward said of his performance. “He showed in that second Lions Test how good he can be. This was in another league.”
The esteem Itoje is held in by coaches, team mates and fans was epitomised in June 2017 by 10,000 Lions fans – and most of the squad themselves – chanting out “Oh, Maro Itoje!” in Wellington, and the same chant could be heard in every bar in Yokohama last Saturday.
Back in 2016, when Jones had eventually brought the young colt into his side and been rewarded with a slew of impressive displays, he acknowledged the talent he had on his hands.
“He certainly can be an 80-capper for England, and if he plays 80 games, he’ll win a World Cup,” he said.
On Saturday, Jones might well be proved right – just 46 caps ahead of schedule.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips; Editing by Hugh Lawson)