Maro Itoje never doubted his ability to survive in the unforgiving world of international rugby where promising talent can be cruelly exposed. Despite being thrown into his first test on Valentines’s Day against Italy in Rome at 21-years-old, just one year later he has become absolutely crucial to England’s bid for a second Grand Slam and a world record run of 19 successive wins.
It has been one of the most remarkable starts to any England career and while the Saracens forward, who can play lock and flanker, was nervous, he never questioned his right to play at the highest level. He explained:” Whenever you take a step up in rugby you are always a bit apprehensive, but that is not to say there wasn’t belief and I didn’t doubt myself and was just super eager for the opportunity to show what I could do at that level
“ It has been a great year and I have thoroughly enjoyed the journey with a lot of positives. Everytime I get the chance to play for England I am honoured and I defiinitely don’t take it for granted and hopefully we can keep the ball rolling.
“My body is getting used to the hits at test level and you do adapt to the intensity. After your first international you are sore, but your body does get used to it and you learn how to deal with it better. My preparation for games has improved and I am not as nervous as I once was and things feel more natural. That will be the result of experience – having played in finals and big internationals with pressure situations.
“I feel I have matured over this last 12 months and like to think I have become a better player. I still love my rugby.”
Besides helping England win the Grand Slam and secure an historic 3-0 test series victory in Australia, Itoje helped Saracens become the Premiership and European Champions Cup double winners giving him a highlights reel that most players do not possess at the very end of their careers. His rugby life has been on fast-forward for most of the last 12 months with the pause button hit only when he broke his hand and missed the four Autumn internationals.
England kept winning without him but there was genuine relief both for club and country when he reported fit for duty with only a scar on the back of his right hand as evidence of the surgery that followed the injury. Besides his hectic rugby life, Itoje is also about to complete his university course with the final exams in May and that explains why he hasn’t taken time to sit back an reflect on the most amazing 12 monts of his life.
“Things have definitely happened very quickly and I am very grateful it has happened the way it has and it is hard to sit back and reflect:” said Itoje. “ That is professional sport; you don’t have that much time because there is always the next challenge and the next match. There is is no point in living in the past when you can look forward to the future.”
That is Itjoe’s mantra for life and in club mate Owen Farrell, who wins his 50th cap against Italy, he has a soul mate. Both players are driven to be the very best and have blossomed in the “no excuses” mentality that underpin Saracens and England and revel in the belief that they can get better with every training session. While Farrell’s whole being exudes that attitude, Itoje is far more laid back but he recognises a kindred spirit.
He added: “Owen has always had this drive and is a very competitive player with very high standards. He is a great player and very passionate. Owen has matured in to a leader and is very measured with a great rugby brain on his shoulders. He is a great player to be alongside because you can tap into all of this experience and knowledge. He is also a great communicator and is able to get his message across which is crucial and drives everyone towards the team’s objective.
“I am sure he is going to get a lot more than 50 caps.”
While Farrell is joining the half century club, Itoje will bring up his 10th cap against Italy and given his age and luck with injuries in the future, he could set a new England cap record given the number of internationals on the schedule. There is also the small matter of gaining selection for this summer’s British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand and Itoje will be one of the first names on head coach Warren Gatland’s squad list.
Mention this to Itoje and he immediately throws in a side-step and reaches for the “one game at a time” cliché. He believes it is presumptuous to to think about the Lions and only has eyes for Italy, refusing to even contemplate that world record run of wins “We are just focussing on the next game and we don’t pay too much attention to talk about records. For us it is all about Italy and then it will be Scotland and Ireland and we always have a next game focus. “
Maro Itoje was speaking on behalf of Mitsubishi Motors UK, Official Performance Partner of England Rugby. The England Rugby players were showcasing the Intelligent Motion at the heart of England Rugby, on and off the field. To find out more follow @MitsubishiUK
as seen in Evening Standard