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Thursday 23 November 2017

England think they may have found the new Paul O'Connell

Paul O'Connell and (right) Maro Itoje
Paul O'Connell and (right) Maro Itoje

Gavin Mairs

Maro Itoje has been hailed as a once‑in-a-generation player who can make a similar impact on the Test arena as the legendary locks Martin Johnson and Paul O’Connell, with the Saracens forward poised to be handed his England debut against Italy in Rome on Sunday.

Itoje, 21, is likely to be named on the bench for England’s second match in this Six Nations Championship having been held back for the 15-9 victory against Scotland with the head coach, Eddie Jones, thought to be contemplating naming six forwards and just two backs in his replacements.

On the evidence of England’s training session at Pennyhill Park on Wednesday, Jones now looks poised to make three changes to the starting XV, with Mako Vunipola and Courtney Lawes coming into the pack and Ben Youngs starting at scrum-half. Jones appears to be keeping the players on edge, however, by mixing up the line-ups.

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Itoje – in his second season with Saracens after playing in the England under-20s side that won the world title in 2014 – is likely to steal the headlines, however, if he makes his senior debut on Sunday given the hype that has been generated by his outstanding performances for his club this season. Paul Gustard, the England defence coach who knows Itoje more than most having coached him through the ranks when he was at Saracens, described him as a rare talent.

“I think the very good players seem to make that transition with aplomb,” Gustard said. “And hopefully Maro is one of those very good players that comes along once in a while, that could be Paul O’Connell or Martin Johnson, whatever it is that he’s going to be.

“He has had a fantastic season. He brings a lot in terms of his defensive collision work, his breakdown work, his work after the ball, his line-out work. The amount of turnovers he generates there is huge. We all hope when he does get that opportunity, whenever he gets it, he takes it with both hands and continues to make those strides.”

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