England's new thinking man's enforcer
Tom Hamilton in Hamilton
June 19, 2014
Maro Itoje will lead England out against South Africa © Getty Images
Maro Itoje is not your average 19-year-old. On Friday he captains England in their second Junior World Championship final in as many years. After that, there will be a limited time for him to catch his breath; it will then be back to England and the focus will switch to reading about decolonisation as he continues his studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
There has been talk of Itoje's prestigious talent for the last few years. He has been on England's radar for a while but the last season has seen him go from a promising player to someone earmarked as a future Premiership enforcer and Test player.
While Jim Hamilton was brought in by Saracens to plug the gap left by the retiring Steve Borthwick, they have a ready-made long-term replacement in their ranks. Itoje is a scholar, both on and off the field. There are few better than Borthwick to learn from and Itoje made sure he soaked up every last ounce of inspiration from the second-row before he left for Far Eastern pastures. It was a case of one England captain imparting knowledge to a current and potentially future one.
There comes a time
"I've been lucky enough to be able to dissect some of his knowledge, in terms of a young second-row growing up he's the greatest lineout mind I've met," Itoje told ESPN. "Having such a close experience of watching how he works and the respect he gets and gives in return and how he operates, I think I've learnt a lot.
"But I'm not there yet. When I joined the full-time Saracens environment, I thought my lineout skills were pretty sharp and the coaches would be happy. But then I watched the first-team lineout session and saw the difference in pace and strength. All of that detail, I realised I have a lot of work to put in."
It is his modesty which could see him realise his potential; talking to Itoje there is no sense of him getting caught up in the hype. It was surprising to see him overlooked for a nomination in the IRB Young Player of the Year shortlist but individual accolades will come, though for him, it is about the team. His role on Friday is to cause as much disruption in South Africa's gameplan as possible.
"From an England point-of-view, every week myself and Charlie [Ewels] go through the opposition and create a bank in which we work out how to make the most of the opposition's weakness. Then we watch their defence and see where we can get an advantage.
"I love it when you do your homework in the week leading up to a game then when you play the game you see what you've been studying unfold. You can then make the most of it. We put a lot of work into the lineout defence so in that respect, I love it when you get it right. It shows the hard work pays off. I also like carrying the ball in a loose area of the pitch."
Rugby only floated across Itoje's radar eight years ago. He had a penchant for the shot-putt, a sport he represented England in at U17 level, and played centre back in football. But when Saracens' academy coach Matt Davies, who is now at Wasps, spotted Itoje in county trials for Hertfordshire, he was only going to go into one sport.
© Getty Images
He is equally happy at blindside or lock, he wants to keep the versatility open as a point of difference, and while he is currently honing his skills in those roles, he is also perfecting the leadership side of his game.
"I like to think I don't talk too much. I like to think that I get the right balance. From the leaders I've seen in my playing career through school and club and Saracens I always felt that it's not always the dog that barks the loudest that says the right thing. I try to say things at the right time with the right level of emotion."
As he sits there calmly and eloquently answering questions, it is hard to imagine Itoje giving a spot of the hairdryer treatment and he strikes you as someone who keeps his emotions in check.
There is also an artistic flair in him. Off-field, alongside his studies, he likes to write poetry. It started on a trip to Newcastle as 24th man for Saracens and since then in his down-time he has written three, one of which is printed alongside this article. If they get through the game against South Africa then Itoje will have enough material for another composition or two.
It was no mean feat that Itoje was selected in Saracens' final match of the season away at Leicester. It was an eye-opener for him but an enjoyable experience nonetheless. Friday will give him a chance to enhance his already growing reputation as one of English rugby's hottest properties, but don't expect him to get caught up in the hype. You sense he will not settle until he has finally achieved his dream of international recognition and that could only be the start for Itoje.
"I have a number of goals, some are long-term, some are short-term. The dream is to one day play for England, hopefully one day that will become a reality. The short-term goal is to win on Friday."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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