England defence coach Paul Gustard tips Maro Itoje for big things
England defence coach Paul Gustard says Maro Itoje could be given the chance to show his prodigious talent in Sunday's RBS 6 Nations clash with Italy.
Itoje and Josh Beaumont have been included in a 25-strong England squad for the trip to Rome.
England head coach Eddie Jones is set to name his starting XV on Friday morning and has hinted that there will be changes to his pack due to the conditions expected at the Stadio Olimpico.
Itoje has been in outstanding form for Saracens this season and could be in line for a first cap in round two of the championship at the expense of either Joe Launchbury, Courtney Lawes or George Kruis.
Gustard, who worked with Itoje at Saracens, likened the 21-year-old to former England captain Steve Borthwick, who is now forwards coach in Jones' new-look England.
"He's had a stellar season, he's been magnificent for Saracens," Gustard said.
"He's matured a lot. He's taken a lot more responsibility in terms of his lineout skills and his leadership.
"He's very diligent as a professional, almost very Borthwick-like."
Gustard reckons the England hierarchy have already demonstrated their confidence in Itoje by naming him in the elite player squad.
"Now we have to back that up at some stage and give him an opportunity to translate his club form into the Test arena," added Gustard, who recalled the size of Itoje was what caught his attention initially.
"He's massive," added Gustard, a former Saracens back-row.
"We had him against the wall. You're meant to be the height you are in your wingspan. He was much longer.
"He's got a huge range, which is probably one of the reasons he's so effective through lineouts."
England may never have lost to Italy, but Gustard and Borthwick know from bitter experience the probable perils of complacency in Rome.
Both were involved when England A lost in Naples in April 2002.
"Unfortunately I was involved in an England A team that lost... the very first England team at any level to lose to Italy," added Gustard, who was an unused replacement that day.
"So it does happen. If you focus on too many other things or you look too far ahead or you look towards Ireland or Wales and so on and start dreaming of other things, you'll trip up fast."
After one round of matches, only two teams have a chance of the Grand Slam, including England who have not achieved the feat of a clean sweep since 2003.
France are the other side in contention after Ireland and Wales drew in Dublin, with England determined to succeed after finishing runners-up in the last four tournaments and the disappointment of their premature World Cup exit last autumn.
Gustard insists the end goal is not in England's minds.
"You take one eye off the path, you've got one eye on the goal, you trip up somewhere on the floor," Gustard added.
The defence specialist has less than half an hour a week in which to collectively shape strategy.
"I only have 28 minutes a week to focus on defence so I have to try and maximise that time as much as I can," he added.
"There is a bit extra, I get time with the backs and forwards on their own. But in terms of team defence and how we want to do it...
"Teams have a pattern of play and I need to devote a certain amount to time accordingly."
As well as Itoje, Jack Clifford could be promoted to start after making his debut off the bench in Edinburgh.
But in selecting the fast Harlequins back row, Jones would have to drop either James Haskell or Chris Robshaw - both of whom performed well against the Scots.
The selected back-row will have to stop Italy captain Sergio Parisse.
"He is a danger and a threat and it is up to us to try and neutralise that and make him a target for ourselves," Gustard said.
"You always try and nullify talisman in opposition teams and he is certainly one of them."