Belfast Telegraph

Maturing Itoje shows he's no cub by living on the edge


By Ruaidhri O'Connor

His name rang out around Wellington's Cake Tin to the tune of 'Seven Nation Army' last Saturday night, he has been hailed as a superstar by all and sundry but it turns out Maro Itoje isn't excellent at everything.

Getting to know these Lions hasn't been easy given the restricted access and security team and often their Instagram feeds are the best spots to get a bit of behind-the-scenes colour.

The players were back on the training field in Queenstown yesterday, but before that they enjoyed two days off in the adventure capital of New Zealand and Itoje joined Liam Williams and Greig Laidlaw for a game of golf and, judging by the videos the full-back posted, the English lock is not very good.

John Eales was known as 'Nobody' because nobody's perfect and Itoje is on track to get to a similar level if this tour has been anything to go by.

He still has edges to knock off.

His over-zealous celebrating of small moments rubs some up the wrong way, his discipline is not always great and he can be surly bordering on rude in his dealings with the media, but it is easy to forget that he is just 22 and has plenty of growing up to do.

That makes him the youngest man on the tour, meaning he adds the safekeeping of the Lions' mascot BIL to his list of responsibilities that has grown to include calling the lineouts.

At a pivotal point of Saturday's second Test, with the Lions seven points down, he called for Jamie George to throw to the tail of the lineout where he took the ball and popped it down to Conor Murray. Within seconds, the Lions had scored the game-changing try.

It was a ballsy call for the young man to make on a night his Saracens colleague described as the toughest conditions he had ever thrown in, but he backed himself and his unit and they delivered for their team.

There was some bemusement when the 'New Zealand Herald' rated him four out of 10 in their player ratings on Sunday. "The way he controlled the game, I'd have given him 9 or 10," George said of his team-mate. "He was exceptional; he took himself to a place I've never seen before. Right on the edge.

"He is always very physical; the way he ran the lineout - it was the toughest conditions I've ever thrown into, in terms of the wind and the rain - it was very difficult and we lost a couple early on.

"But he showed real maturity and led that pack around. It was brilliant to witness and be a part of."

Itoje's battle with Brodie Retallick at Eden Park this weekend could be the series' defining clash; the All Black is the best second-row in the world and is attaining all-time-great status, but a rival is fast emerging in the English lock.

The North Londoner is an interesting character off the pitch too. The son of Nigerian immigrants, he was awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Harrow school and is currently studying for a degree in politics at the London School of Oriental and African Studies and when he gets home he's straight into preparation for his exams in August.

First, sporting glory beckons for a young man who has known nothing but success in his professional career.

Already, he has two Six Nations medals, one with a Grand Slam, two Champions Cups, a Premiership and an U-20 World Cup under his belt. If the fans' favourite adds a Lions series win, he'll be close to a full set before turning 23.

Leaving him out of the first Test could yet come back to bite Warren Gatland, but he could yet finish as the man of the series.

His name is on the lips of every Lions fan making their way across New Zealand and they'll hope to be roaring it out at the top of their voices on Saturday.

"It's incredible," Taulupe Faletau said of the support and the chant. "To see the load of red in the stands and then just chanting 'Maro Itoje' is awesome.

"It's 100 per cent a boost to the guys on the pitch. You can't give him stick. You've just got to appreciate it.

"He's put a marker down in world rugby. He was phenomenal, I thought. I'm just glad he's on our side."

There remains work to be done by the youngster though as he continues to edge towards the top.

His physical prowess is outstanding, but often he pushes the boundaries of what's legal and his concession of two penalties last weekend could have proven more costly. Warren Gatland will be having a quiet word, but the great second-rows live on the edge.

"Rugby is a physical sport and every game you play there's a physical element to it and more often than not, the team who ends up winning has been more physical, has been more dominant," he said earlier on the tour.

"So we look at the type of players we have and the way we want to try and play and we'll try and be as physical as possible and try and get the edge that way."

Belfast Telegraph


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