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Maro Itoje has finally grown into a leader for England – and Steve Borthwick is delighted

Maro Itoje against England/How Maro Itoje has finally grown into a leader for England

It was the small things that Steve Borthwick noticed first. Maro Itoje had changed. It was not that the Saracens lock was suddenly making chest-beating inspirational speeches, but when Borthwick returned as England head coach last year he found that the quiet man, at least off the pitch, had found his voice within the squad.

It had been different in 2019, when Borthwick finished up after four years as assistant to his predecessor, Eddie Jones. It was a widely held assumption that Itoje had been a future England captain when he burst onto the international stage in 2016.

Two years earlier, he had captained the England Under-20s side that won the Junior World Championship. Here was an educated, eloquent and politically aware forward who also brought a ferociously physical edge to England’s pack, the kind of leading-from-the-front mentality of former captain and second row Martin Johnson.

Yet while the trajectory of his career soared, the captaincy never came. His performance in the British and Irish Lions victory over the All Blacks in Wellington in 2017 assured him of a place in the tourists’ folklore, while he delivered a similarly memorable man-of-the-match display in England’s victory over New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final two years later in Yokohama.

Borthwick has high hopes for Itoje this World Cup cycle
England head coach Steve Borthwick has high hopes for Itoje this World Cup cycle - Getty Images/Steve Bardens

He had his advocates, including myself, for him to be captain of the Lions for the tour of South Africa in 2021, but Warren Gatland turned to Wales’s Alun Wyn Jones.

Writing in his book Leadership: Lessons From My Life In Rugby, Eddie Jones addressed the issue: “I might be wrong, but I am not sure Maro is a future England captain. He is going to be one of the great players, but he is very inward-looking. He drives himself rather than anyone else. He doesn’t usually influence people off the field.”

‘The players have enormous respect for him’

Borthwick’s first instinct was not dissimilar. But when he returned after three seasons as head coach of Leicester Tigers, he saw that Itoje was no longer just focused on himself but others too. It was a change in attitude and application that prompted Borthwick to make Itoje one of his vice-captains this year. And in the 52-17 victory against Japan in the National Stadium in Tokyo on Saturday, he finished the game as captain when Jamie George was replaced in the 44th minute.

“Maro’s influence in this squad has grown since I had a three-year time away. I come back and straightaway it strikes me his influence has grown enormously,” said Borthwick.

“When he speaks, he speaks in a quiet, considered manner, different from most people, and I think that’s great. We’ve got some variety in what we do.

“The players listen to him; they have enormous respect for him. He’s worked exceptionally hard on his own game. In his training week, his conditioning, the meticulous nature of his preparation. The players see that as well, so he’s become a bit of a role model.

“Everyone notices the big speech or the big moment or that big thing. What I notice much more about Maro is all the little moments – spending more time having little conversations around the edges of players, bringing them closer and aligning them. Those conversations that I didn’t necessarily see previously. He clearly puts lots of thought off the training field into what effect he wants to have upon people and what effect he wants to have on the group and every day. And ultimately, as a leader, that’s what you’re trying to do.

“He wants to be the best he can be. It is very clear to me how ambitious he is as a player to keep growing and keep developing.”

‘Maro likes to have clear targets to go after’

His game may not be as visibly explosive as it was during the early stages of his international career, but having overcome a health issue that affected his conditioning and energy levels, Borthwick revealed that Itoje’s match involvements on Saturday were as high as a back-row forward and he has wider responsibilities, including running England’s line-out.

“His numbers are phenomenal,” added Borthwick. “I am pushing him to keep on getting more involved because when he is, good things happen.

Itoje turned in a gritty, nuts-and-bolts display against Japan
Itoje turned in a gritty, nuts-and-bolts display against Japan - AFP/Philip Fong

“Every player responds in different ways and what Maro likes is clear targets. He likes saying, ‘This is what I want to chase, this is what I want to go after.’ And he does that really well. This is a player who in his off period last year went to Portugal and took a trainer with him to do extra work. That tells you about the guy. He has been enormous for us.

“He’s the guy who definitely holds lots of information and wants to understand the full picture. He will want to know all his measures, all his work-rate involvements. We will go through the video, and I will pick moments from the game, discuss his feelings and what we are going to work on next week.”

The conversation turns to next year’s Lions tour of Australia. At the age of 29, Itoje has 81 caps and has already toured with the Lions twice, in 2017 and 2021. He is almost a certainty to be one of the Test locks next year and if his leadership skills are improving, it would naturally bring him into the conversation to be captain.

“I see Maro over this cycle to the next World Cup getting even better and as a player changes in his experience,” said Borthwick.

“Maro Itoje is a Test match animal. Maro Itoje is a player who I think can get even better than what he is now. We have seen in the last few years he has taken more of a line-out role. He has added that leadership string to his bow. You have seen in the Six Nations and on Saturday, his ability in attack. Maro used to get the ball and carry. Now he is able to move the ball and put people into some spaces.

“At the very core of Maro is a physical, destructive defender. That is the bit where he has the biggest impact in games and that is the bit that grabs people. They want to follow him into battle in that regard. I think he can achieve a lot in this next cycle to the World Cup.

“Leaders have an effect on people, to move people. Maro does that.”