Warren Gatland will warn Maro Itoje to expect New Zealand to target him on this summer’s Lions tour. The Lions’ head coach believes shutting down the best young forward in European rugby will be a tactical and psychological objective for the world champions in the three-Test series.
At 22, Itoje is the youngest member of Gatland’s 41-strong squad and has only 12 England caps. Though his potential is huge, his club and country career has mostly been characterised by success, and no Six Nations opponent, with the arguable exception of Ireland in Dublin in March, has been able to smother him.
Gatland expects Itoje to shine in New Zealand but says: “He could be a player they may target, and I’ll be interested to see how he responds to that. They might see him as potentially a key for the Lions and see if they can shut him down, or physically dominate him. He’s going to have to learn from that.
“New Zealand sides sometimes go on with a different focus or a different approach. Everyone talks about their ability to play rugby, quality rugby, but when they need to they can mix it up as well. They can change your focus and turn that into a bit of a dogfight.
“I think we saw that the week after they lost to Ireland in Chicago. They went to Dublin and it wasn’t about the performance. It was about the result. They’d had a kick up the backside and thought - whatever it takes we’ve got to win this match.”
Gatland shares the high opinion of Itoje held by Eddie Jones, the England coach. “I think as an athlete he’s something a little bit special,” Gatland said.
“He’s still learning. The more he plays the better he’s going to get. He’s got a massive engine on him and his work rate is just phenomenal. Hopefully we can get him to play a little bit smarter in terms of picking his moments, with that youthful enthusiasm of trying all the time. He’s just involved in everything. Just looking at him, he will respond to that challenge.
“He’s someone you couldn’t ignore. He’s been a big part of England’s success and also at Saracens. In the last few years he hasn’t been in many games where he’s been part of the losing team. As a youngster I don’t think you think too much. It [winning] becomes an expectation. If you look at the second-rows there’s going to be a huge amount of competition. He looks to me like someone who’s potentially a little bit special and I think he’s going to thrive in New Zealand.”
Itoje was a certainty to be picked but England have also produced two ‘bolters’ in Elliot Daly (13 caps) and Ben Te’o, Auckland born, who has made eight appearances for his adopted country.
Gatland explained those selections: “The thing with Elliot is that he fulfils a number of things. He’s obviously a quality player, he’s quick, he can cover three positions, having played centre, on the wing for England, and at full-back. He’s a big goalkicker, if we need that.
“Eddie has used Ben at centre. We see him more as a 12, and given his inexperience at the very highest level he’d probably defend easier at 12. But he’s made a difference coming off the bench against Wales down there [in Cardiff]. He’s obviously a big man, but he’s not just someone who crashes the ball up. He’s got some skill, he’s got some offloading ability.
“Rob Howley and Steve Borthwick [assistant coaches] watched him a few weeks ago when Worcester beat Bath and he had some nice touches. That performance was probably something that got him in the squad. We were looking for something potentially a little bit different.”
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