‘Phenomenal’ Maro Itoje relishing new role as lineout leader | Gerard Meagher

Gerard Meagher
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Only injury could prevent Maro Itoje getting a call-up to the British &amp; Irish Lions squad this summer.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images</span>
Only injury could prevent Maro Itoje getting a call-up to the British & Irish Lions squad this summer. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

There are seemingly endless ways of highlighting the speed of Maro Itoje’s rise to being one of the world’s premier locks and an England captain in waiting, but the latest is another that will astound: the last time the British & Irish Lions toured New Zealand, in 2005, Itoje was yet to even pick up a rugby ball.

It also serves as a reminder that he is still learning his trade. This season, with Saracens incurring a number of injuries at second row, the 22-year-old Itoje has been calling the lineout for the first time in his fledgling career.

Considering his development over the past two years there would not seem room for another string on his bow but Mark McCall has been suitably impressed and Eddie Jones saw fit to task Itoje with that responsibility in Dublin. It must be said that it was he who was beaten to the ball by Ireland’s Peter O’Mahony in the dying stages of England’s defeat, but since returning to Saracens he has continued apace in victories over Glasgow, Bath and Harlequins.

“I always wanted to know how to do it. I want to be the roundest player I can. Having the ability to do this definitely strengthens your arsenal,” Itoje says.

“It’s tough, when you have experienced callers in front of you, to get the opportunity. Now that I’ve had a couple of months doing it, I’ve found it tough, challenging, but I’ve enjoyed it and whenever I get the opportunity in the future I’ll take it. Before the Six Nations I hadn’t had much calling time under my belt, but it’s something I’d been practising whilst I trained; shadowing some of the senior callers at the club. When the time came it was good for me.”

That aforementioned lost lineout seemed to be affirmation for those who believe Itoje has levelled out this season; that, since moving to the No6 jersey during the Six Nations, his development has slowed. McCall staunchly disagrees. “Some people will look at his contributions in games and his contributions aren’t easy to see all the time,” the Saracens director of rugby says. “You get the odd massive tackle, the odd carry, but he contributes in so many other ways. I think he’s taken his game to another level and in the last couple of weeks he’s been as good as anybody for us.

“I went in to see our personal development manager to say how good he had been in training and he told me about the essay he had sent over for his dissertation, which is apparently incredible as well. This is a kid who knows what he’s doing and he’s so diligent about everything he does. People listen to him when he talks. It’s almost like he’s competing with himself not to have a dip. He sets a phenomenal example.”

Should George Kruis return from a knee injury for Saracens against Northampton on Sunday, it is likely that he will resume lineout duties. During the Six Nations Jones described Kruis as his best set‑piece lock and if all four of England’s second‑rows do not make the Lions squad – though there is every chance that they will – Kruis’s encounter with Courtney Lawes this weekend may prove pivotal.

<span class="element-image__caption">England’s Maro Itoje claims a lineout against Italy.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Henry Browne/Reuters</span>
England’s Maro Itoje claims a lineout against Italy. Photograph: Henry Browne/Reuters

“George is a genuinely quality player, he adds a lot of value to the team, a lot of nous, he’s one of the leaders and a big character in the team, so it’s going to be good to have him back,” Itoje says. “I’m going to enjoy playing with him again, it’s been a while. A healthy George is a healthier Saracens. His lineout work is pretty special. Not only that, he’s vocal around the pitch, communicates well. He’s one of the standard bearers, he adds general value to the team.

“And Courtney is awesome, an incredible player and I really enjoyed playing with him during the Six Nations. He’s very athletic, very physical, a good ball carrier, he’s a top player. But George is also a great player.”

Inevitably with Itoje, the conversation turns to his academic life. He is guarded as to exactly when his summer exams are but confirms they will not clash with a Lions tour for which that only injury will prevent him being selected. His essay, for the record, was “on whether geography constrained Africa’s development”. The conclusion? “Yes.”

And if he does not recall the 2005 tour, what is his best Lions memory? “It was in South Africa – that was the first tour I was interested in,” Itoje says. “My interest in 2013 was even more profound. I had been playing rugby for a couple of years then, it was a great tour. But the thing that stands out for me is Ugo Monye’s try [in 2009]. To see him run down the wing, intercept and celebrate – it was good, to see a fellow Nigerian do that for the Lions was nice.”

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