England’s head coach, Eddie Jones, believes Maro Itoje is experiencing “second season” syndrome and is still feeling the after-effects of the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand last year. He predicts, however, the Saracens forward will emerge stronger from his current dip and prove a formidable presence at the Rugby World Cup next year.
The 23-year-old Itoje, along with several of his team-mates, has yet to recapture the world-class form that propelled him into the Lions Test side and helped to restrict the All Blacks to a drawn series. His season has also been disrupted by a broken jaw and a hip problem and, along with the rest of England’s pack, he has endured a mixed Six Nations so far.
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Improvement will be needed against France in Paris this weekend but Jones believes Itoje is more than good enough to bounce back.
“It is difficult when you come out of the blocks in the first season because you not only carry more expectation, you carry more attention from other players,” Jones said, employing a cricket analogy to explain why his lock forward is finding life tougher. “First season, no one knows your best shot, no one knows where you score runs. Second season, everyone knows, they take that away from you and you’ve got to find a different way to score. That’s what he’s finding at the moment.”
Even Itoje’s ability to use his long arms to disrupt opposition ball has been less evident, with opposing teams now warier. “He is an energetic player and he got a lot of his energy from around the ruck,” Jones said.
“What he is going through at the moment is very natural … he is still going to be a great player for us. Whatever happens for the rest of the Six Nations we will come out of this a stronger side. I hate losing but this has been a great experience for us. The expectation on us is high and we have to embrace that and cope with it.”
Jones also feels that supplying 16 players to the Lions squad last summer has affected his team this season. “History shows the team with the most Lions struggles in the Six Nations. I always knew this was going to be a tough year but we haven’t used that as an excuse and we don’t intend to … I’m starting to see some light about where the players can be. But if you’ve got that many players on a post-season tour that is three or four times longer than a normal tour it’s going to have an effect.”