Jan 15, 2016
In Focus - Super Maro looking to kick on
The ‘hottest property’ in England. The ‘great new hope’. Professional rugby is no stranger to hype, yet with Saracens lock Maro Itoje you just feel that the talk surrounding this humble and driven 21-year old may just not be the usual hyperbole that goes hand in hand with the modern day athlete.
Much like his stars ascent, the column inches have been increasing for Maro Itoje over the last year. In January 2015, he was preparing to mastermind Saracens Storm’s A-League exploits and map out the club’s LV=Cup run (both, where Itoje captained the club to success). In January 2016, he is fast becoming the cornerstone of a Saracens pack that has gone eleven games unbeaten in both the league and continental competition and was recently called-up to Eddie Jones’ England set-up. Yet, Itoje is taking all of this in his considerable stride.
No stranger to such attention despite having only player 39 professional games for the north Londoners, Itoje knows that to fulfil his undoubted promise he mustn’t deviate from the formula that has already provided him with success. A sense of perspective.
“I feel like I’m a grounded person (although I’m not sure how grounded that sounds saying that), said Itoje, “it’s important for me to keep a real perspective on things, and keep on seeing the bigger picture if I want to continue to improve as a person and a rugby player”.
“It’s a little obvious, but the more you play the more experienced you get. With that experience comes a little bit of confidence, so I think I’ve matured from this time last season when I was playing in the LV=Cup and the A-League, and hopefully I’ll keep on maturing.
“Last year was the year where I really started to play some first team rugby, and that’s continued into this season. I feel that with the plethora of talent that’s here, and the quality of individuals in amongst the group, that I feel very honoured to be a part of that and to continue to do that on the field.”
His rampaging performances for Saracens this season have made English rugby stand up and take notice to the former Harpenden RFC junior. Physical, dynamic, with a game understanding that is beyond his years, the charismatic lock or back rower will link up eith Eddie Jones’ new look England set up that will include his former mentor Steve Borthwick and current Saracens defence and forwards coach, Paul Gustard later this month.
Having so impressively adorned a star and crescent on his chest, does Itoje feel ready to try the red rose?
“I’m very privileged to be playing for Saracens. It’s such a great club who having already provided me with so many opportunities and I’m so happy to be playing here first and foremost but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have any further ambitions outside of the club game, and I’m working hard and hopefully that will come. Its clichéd, but that will only happen if I keep putting in the performances for Saracens.
“The opportunity may come along I think I’m ready to take it. I’ve played in some big ‘tier one’ games for Saracens in the Champions Cup and the Aviva Premiership so I think I’d be ready for that next step.”
It’s a step that Itoje’s director of rugby Mark McCall believes he is ready to take: "At this club if we think you're ready we're going to put you in. It took Maro just three months to convince us last season. He's bright, he's physical, he makes things happen around him and this season his performance levels have continued to impress. He’s definitely ready in my opinion.”
Itoje’s prominence has been great timing for Saracens, with skipper Alastair Hargreaves side-lined with a head injury and experienced lock forward Jim Hamilton having also spent time out with a few knocks. In that time he has forged an impressive combination with George Kruis, himself one of English rugby’s finest young forwards.
"Over the last six months I have played a lot of rugby alongside George, and I feel I have learned a lot from him as well,” said Itoje. “He’s a quality individual and I think that he’s a great player and I really do enjoy playing with him. We’re just part of team that has been doing really well this season.”
“We don’t like to look past the next game, and that’s one of biggest strengths as a team and one of the main reasons why we’re doing so well at the moment. We critically look at what we do, and our coaches here are very good at helping us improve week-in-week-out on how and where we can improve. If we can continue to all do that, then we certainly be able to get some good outcomes in the games we play.”
Highlights of Itoje's career so far
Itoje impresses on Premiership debut
Making your Premiership bow at the home of Leicester Tigers may be daunting for most youngsters, but it was certainly a league debut to remember for Itoje.
Not only was it the fact he started as a fresh faced 19-year old, but that he was part of a young team that pushed the Tigers very close at Welford Road in a gallant 31-27 defeat.
Itoje produced a performance that exuded confidence, portraying himself as seasoned Premiership campaigner despite it being his Premiership debut. In the game Itoje made the fourth most carries, with five, and had an excellent average gain per carry of 5.4 metres.
One carry was a brilliant try assist after pouncing on Tigers fumble he beat 2 defenders and gave a superb offload to put wing Jack Wilson over for a try. He made 14 tackles along the way too. Itoje didn’t shy away from any work and took his opportunity to make an impact and provided with observed with a taste of things to come.
Junior World Championship glory
Not many players can boast that they have led their country to World Championship glory at any age group, but Itoje did exactly that when England U20s narrowly beat South Africa in 21-20.
Itoje was a pillar strength for England U20s in their Six Nations campaign in the lead up to the tournament in New Zealand and he continued his fine form throughout the World Championship campaign.
On winning the trophy, Itoje: “It doesn’t feel real at the moment. It feels pretty special.
“It’s something I used to dream f when I heard about the Under-20 Championship and I am so happy to be able to lift the trophy. This has been a fantastic experience for us," the then 19-year-old added.
“It’s an amazing feeling; we have been working so hard. It’s just joy, our boys worked so hard and we got what we deserved. We believed that if we stayed to our principles and stayed to the plan we’d do well and we did, we won the World Cup.”
Appointed LV=Cup skipper for 2014/15 season
Captaining a side that includes established players who have played in Premiership finals and World Cup’s is no mean feat for a 19-year old, but that’s exactly what Maro Itoje did when he led out Saracens against Harlequins in November 2014.
Itoje had already assumed the ‘armband’ for Saracens A-League campaign earlier that season, but his appointment to skipper Saracens in the Anglo-Welsh campaign was another vindication of Itoje’s burgeoning reputation as one of the game’s exciting leaders.
Maro’s Saxons bow
Itoje produced an extremely impressive performance for England Saxons in their 18-9 win against the Irish Wolfhounds in January.
The 2014 Junior World Championship winning skipper was in fine form during his 65 minutes on the field. He was a constant menace for the Wolfhounds attack, with a series of suffocating tackles and clever work at the breakdown.
“It was a very good experience, one that I thoroughly enjoyed,” said Itoje of his Saxons bow. “I was little bit nervous going into it. I was going into unknown environment and I didn’t really know too many people but it was a great week and I thought I went ok in the game. All in all, it was a week I really enjoyed."
Itoje lifts A-League and LV=Cup title’s
13 games as captain, and 13 wins. A 100% record like that can ultimately lead to one thing, silverware. In a highly successful A-League campaign, Itoje spearheaded the Saracens Storm campaign, with the Storm winning the Premiership A-League campaign against Worcester Cavaliers at Sixways Stadium – the club’s first ever A-League win. Itoje scored in the final and lifted the trophy to wild celebrations on a rainy February evening in Worcester.
Fast forward to March. After a nervy and tense semi-final win against rivals Northampton at Allianz Park, Itoje led out his Saracens side in the LV=Cup final against Exeter Chiefs.
In an equally nail-biting finale, Ben Spencer’s last second penalty booted Saracens to glory. Itoje held the Anglo-Welsh trophy aloft to wild celebrations at Franklin’s Gardens.
Mixing it with Europe’s finest
Despite the agony of missing out on a European Champions Cup final, Saracens could console themselves with how well their pack of forwards equipped themselves against ASM Clermont Auvergen in a cauldron of noise in Saint-Etienne. Itoje was picked a blindside flanker and the 20-year old looked right at place at the coalface of continental competition.
Rugby World Magazine wrote of his performance: “Despite such impressive credentials, it was still something of a shock that Mark McCall selected Itoje at blindside flanker to face Clermont in this weekend’s European Champions Cup semi-final.
“Less surprising was the fact that this six foot, five inch specimen met the mighty challenge and excelled, following the trend of an immensely eye-catching career thus far.
"Indeed, Itoje’s authoritative, influential display was a significant positive for Saracens fans to take from an agonising 13-9 defeat.”