Sunday 17 November 2019

Ruaidhri O'Connor: 'Itoje stands tall as the best in the game with a performance for the ages'

England's Maro Itoje
England's Maro Itoje

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

For a while now the number crunchers at Rugby Pass have been running an index to determine the most valuable players in the sport, and Maro Itoje has consistently led the way.

On Saturday night you didn't need to run any algorithms to determine the most influential player on the field; he was there for all to see.

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When Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett and Codie Taylor close their eyes and think of England, they'll see Itoje looming. It is his hulking frame that will haunt their dreams.

For much of the last decade the Kiwis have had the premier lineout in the game, run by the elite second-rows.

That era came crashing down around them in Yokohama, and it was Itoje who lit the fuse with a display of incredible intelligence, athleticism and skill that marked him out as the best in the business.

His name rang down from the stands to the tune of Seven Nation Army, just as it did in Wellington two years ago when he was a leading light in the Lions' win over the All Blacks in that second Test.

He was very good then, but he's better now. At 24, playing in his first World Cup, he delivered big play after big play against the team everyone thought was the best in the world, until they ran into England on a good day.

Standing in the mixed zone afterwards he chatted to reporters with a nonchalance that made you wonder if it was the same man we'd watched deliver so much on the pitch. While others bore the scars of battle, he looked like he'd barely broken a sweat on the pitch.

He stuck to the party line in his interview, as most players in his position do. It was left for others to acclaim what they'd witnessed, even if it came at their own expense.

"He is maturing into a really good rugby player," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said.

"I watched the game again this morning and he is a nuisance. On many, many occasions.

"He's athletic, he is a smart player and he has the ability to adapt and adjust to what he is seeing and feeling, so he is one of those players that could go on and be a great.

"I haven't coached him. I've only coached against him. I think he is a better player now than he was in the (British & Irish) Lions' series.

"He's more complete. I can't give him any more compliments than that."

During the Lions tour, Itoje was culpable for moments of ill-discipline that undermined his obvious ability.

In the year that followed, his form dipped with England's and his penalty count remained substantial, but in the past 12 months he has reduced the errors in judgement and become a more effective player.

His aggression is controlled and as a result it's effective. There are times he gets away with incidents in the way former greats like Martin Johnson and Richie McCaw did. He gets under players' skin, as he did when pulling James Ryan's jersey over his head in the Champions Cup final last May.

Saturday was the third time at the World Cup Itoje made three turnovers in a match, while he took seven lineouts - two on the opposition ball. Of course, he wasn't alone in one of the great team performances but it was he who set the tone and refused to take whatever New Zealand wanted to give him.

At one point, he entered an All Black maul legally and battled through the middle before reaching over the top and hauling the ball from Aaron Smith's grip.

We've seen him do it before for Saracens and even for England, but it was one of a number of moments where Itoje and England halted New Zealand's momentum and turned the game a little more in their favour.

Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and George Ford were among those who followed, but it was the second-row, who has taken over the lineout calling from George Kruis with little fuss during the tournament, who led from the opening minute.

"He's a great teammate, he's one of those that can give you confidence when you're running out because you know what he can do," his Saracens and England colleague Mako Vunipola said.

"It's not that he goes out of his way to make unbelievable plays, he's in the right position to make those plays and he's very talented as well.

"You saw today, not only calling the lineout but defending them.

"Around the park he gives us a lot of energy, go-forward and in attack.

"So, no, he's a very good player. He's not a great singer, he's not a great dancer, but you can't have everything."

In the modern world where dominant tackling is the key to the game, Itoje is one of the leaders in the field.

Ireland, Munster and Leinster have all suffered against him this season and now the All Blacks know what he can bring. This week, South Africa will have to be wary of the energy England derive from him.

"He had a fantastic game, he's a great player for them," Lood de Jager, who will be facing Itoje down in Yokohama next week, said.

"He's a big player, they rely on him a lot. He has a lot of big moments, he brings a lot of big moments and lots of turnovers.

"It's going to be a great challenge coming up against him this weekend, we'll go and have a look at what they do at lineout time, analyse them and come up with a big plan.

"He's quality. You want to test yourself against the best in the world and that's the opportunity we have."

For de Jager, Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit, much of the next week will be spent honing in on Itoje as the man they have to neutralise to become world champions.

They're all world-class operators in their own right, but that is some challenge.

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