Maro Itoje’s remarkable rugby story started at Eden Park in Auckland in 2104 where he captained England U20’s to a Junior World Cup triumph and now, just three years later, the Saracens forward returns to that formidable sporting arena to help the British and Irish Lions make history by defeating the All Blacks in a test series for the first time since 1971.
Itoje was central to England’s dramatic 21-20 win over South Africa in that World Cup final and then stepped onto a fast moving career escalator that has taken him to the top of the sport. Along the way, Itoje has collected a Grand Slam with England and European Champions Cup and Premiership winners medals with his club and last week he became a test winning Lions player after helping defeat the All Blacks 24-21 to send the series into a decider at Eden Park on Saturday.
The 22-year-old is, along with All Black Beauden Barrett, the hottest property in World rugby and his off-the-field activities are now controlled by the Stellar group who are used to handling big sporting stars like Gareth Bale. If Itoje does help the Lions win the series then his profile will become even bigger, although anyone in Wellington last Saturday night, as tens of thousands of Lions supporters in the crowd sang his name with real gusto, would assume that has already happened.
Itoje is well aware of the tall poppy syndrome and even before the Lions tour started he acknowledged just how important the Sarries ethos is to his sporting life. He said: “I am fortunate to be in a team where the individuals are still hungry and no one rests on their laurels and the club is always looking to move forward. It has been very important to be part of a hard-working and motivated organisation and I have benefitted greatly because of that.”
He has also benefitted from physical attributes that set him apart from the rest of the outstanding generation of young players that have helped make England the No2 team in the World. He is a line out problem for opponents while also able to use his physical attributes to secure his own ball by seemingly hanging in the air. Fellow Sarries players quickly recognised that Itoje was special and former Scotland captain Kelly Brown, now an Academy coach at Sarries, told Standard Sport: ““The average person’s wingspan of their arms is the same as their height, but Maro’s is longer than his height and that means at the line out, mauls and break downs he gets everywhere. He is a nightmare to play against.”
Although his natural sporting skills marked him out as a special athlete while at Harrow School, his parents rammed home the need to concentrate on his studies and the Sarries lock has been studying for a politics degree at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and he needs to complete a final exam on his return from the tour. While at Harrow one of his favourite subjects was critical thinking – the ability to understand complex problems and find a solution and this ability has been transferred to his rugby.
Against the All Blacks in the biggest game of his life on Saturday, Itoje will be calling the vital line outs and solving problems set by the best team in the sport.“I studied critical thinking at Harrow and the coaches have that same mind set at Saracens along with the majority of players ;” Itoje explained last season “ When you have a group of players who want to get better and are critical of themselves and want to learn from mistakes. It is really is beneficial. I have been at the club since 14-years-old and I was in the Academy when(director of rugby) Brendan Venter arrived and I had very little to do with the first team but you still got that trickle down effect and it permeated through the club. When I became part of the environment it meant it was very easy to buy into the way Saracens do things.”