SYDNEY, Australia — On Saturday, it will be 412 days since Maro Itoje last lost a game he started. He remembers the game: it was May 10, 2015, when Saracens were defeated by Exeter at Allianz Park. Twenty-five games later and he has not tasted a loss where he was named in the first 15.
The face of English rugby has changed since that Exeter defeat; the last chapter had the full stop of World Cup devastation put to it but Itoje has been leading the charge in the new era under Eddie Jones.
Jones used Itoje sparingly in his first two matches as coach; though Itoje had a reputation as one of the hottest young prospects in world rugby, Jones was reluctant to throw him in at the deep end. But when he wins his seventh cap on Saturday, he will be looked upon as one of the essential cogs in the current England wheel.
John Eales is a fan as were the folk who decided the various end-of-season awards where Itoje cleaned up. But he is forever reticent to take any of the praise; any notion of his individual brilliance is straight-batted.
“I’m fully aware that these things [awards] are happening not due to my own power,” Itoje said. “When you go out and play rugby it’s not one man versus 15. I know without my teammates, the guys either side of me, without the coaches and back-room staff, none of this could happen.
“I’m very fortunate to be part of two extremely well coached, motivated teams and each individual in each of those two squads always wants to get better. I’m just fortunate to be in that position.”
Maro Itoje is refreshingly laid back despite his rapid rise through the England ranks. David Rogers/Getty Images
The ‘all for one and one for all’ attitude is straight from the credo Jones has built into this team and Itoje fits his blueprint as a player who offers a point of difference. For him, as he assesses his own development, he feels his mindset has altered since the start of the season. The experience of the big games means he has, in his own words, “more clarity of thought” which “eases tensions going into the big occasions”.
The “big occasions” last season saw Saracens sweep all before them winning the domestic double. Itoje, with his extraordinary unbeaten record, was integral to that feat. The squad dub him the ‘chosen one’ on account of his remarkable rise but again, when talking about that 25-game run, there is no sense of his own egoism.
“I’m aware of it but again, I’m fortunate to be part of two very talented teams and the people in those teams work very hard to get into those positions,” Itoje said. “I never go into a game by myself; I know that I need the people either side of me and the whole 23-man squad to get the result. That’s more of a reflection of the teams I’ve been involved in, rather than myself.”
That all-encompassing team mentality will be at the forefront of England’s approach to Saturday’s third Test in Sydney. The team want to win 3-0 and Jones will keep the faith with the bulk of the squad that won in Melbourne but Teimana Harrison is set to replace the injured James Haskell.
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