British and Irish Lions tour: Can Maro Itoje captain tour of South Africa?
Maro Itoje’s CV does not have many gaps. A number of Six Nations, Premiership and Champions Cup titles. Two World Participant of the Yr nominations. One Rugby World Cup last look. And never loads of room for enchancment.
When the British and Irish Lions squad is introduced, in early Might as issues stands, an injury-free Itoje is a certainty.
However, regardless of all his success, does he have the credentials to captain the tour of South Africa?
It might buck the pattern.
Sam Warburton had led Wales to a World Cup semi-final and a Six Nations Grand Slam earlier than taking the Lions position.
Warburton’s predecessor Paul O’Connell had skippered Eire and steered Munster to European glory.
Earlier than the 2005 tour, Brian O’Driscoll had captained each province and nation.
Itoje has carried out neither.
As a 20-year-old, he led a second-string Saracens to an LV Cup success. However Brad Barritt has been his captain in each membership match that actually issues. Owen Farrell and, beforehand, Dylan Hartley have been chosen to led England forward of him.
He might have be a world star, however only a few have seen Itoje the captain. One among them is Joel Conlon.
When England Below-20s beat South Africa to win the 2014 World Junior Championship, Conlon scored the successful try to Itoje lifted the trophy.
A 12 months later, Conlon joined Itoje at Saracens, the place they shared a dressing room for 3 seasons.
“Maro was at all times a pacesetter within the England age-grade group, however when he turned captain in 2014 it was fairly new for him,” he stated.
“He by no means felt pressured by it, however perhaps he felt there was an expectation on him to be a sure means.
“I believe that’s the greatest change I’ve seen in Maro from then to now.
“He isn’t so nervous about being too vocal anymore, he does not actually get folks right into a huddle and provides a giant inspirational speak, particularly at Saracens the place there are such a lot of world class and older gamers.
“Maro would delegate totally different areas and Share the accountability of management. At Saracens, it by no means rests on one particular person’s shoulders. Brad may need the ultimate phrase however Owen would speak about assault, Jackson Wray perhaps speaking defence, the scrum-half main on the kicking recreation.
“Maro may be very a lot into doing his job effectively and main by instance, in the way in which he applies himself and takes his personal recreation and evaluation to the subsequent stage.
“He’s very, very pushed and has unimaginable consideration to element reviewing his personal performances and his personal coaching.”
Former England scrum-half Danny Care noticed Itoje’s stratospheric requirements pressure his senior worldwide team-mates to maintain sharp as effectively.
“I’ve by no means seen him have a nasty coaching session, not to mention a nasty recreation,” Care advised Rugby Union Weekly.
“The vitality, professionalism, dedication he brings day in day trip has a knock-on impact of creating everybody round him a greater participant – Owen is a little more vocal with it, however Maro does it with out speaking.
“It’s important to be on his stage on daily basis, if not you get ‘the stare’ from Maro, which you do not need.”
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A lot of the Lions’ mystique has been constructed on precisely what Itoje does not do. Over time, behind-the-scenes documentaries have captured pre-match group talks that elevate neck hairs and pulse charges. They’ve turn out to be a part of the touring custom.
Farrell and Alun Wyn Jones, the opposite main contenders to captain the facet, ship in spades on that entrance. Each are pure commanders in chief.
Whereas these moments make good footage, Conlon believes Itoje’s management extends to locations the cameras do not attain.
Thought of and managed in interviews off the pitch, the 26-year-old has a unique persona on it.
Itoje is a one-man pep-rally of again slaps and bum faucets for his team-mates, and needle for the opposition.
In 2018, he joined Glasgow’s huddle as they mistakenly celebrated a disallowed try. In 2020, CJ Stander, who misplaced his shirt in a Twickenham scuffle with Itoje, stated the second row’s potential to “get below everybody’s pores and skin” was a part of his greatness.
“He loves revving folks up on the pitch, making loads of noise and celebrating small victories,” stated Conlon.
“It helps inspire him and the folks round him – it’s nearly a technical a part of his recreation.
“He’s very thought-about particular person, a scholar of the sport. Him shouting and screaming shouldn’t be him dropping management, it’s all very deliberate out.
“Equally when you make a giant hit or a giant carry or an excellent resolution, he’s the primary particular person to come back over and faucet you on the again and offer you an encouraging phrase.
“They’re the issues you do not see, however the little phrases and gestures imply so much as a team-mate.
“These refined elements of management are so much larger in case you are a part of a group, quite than the inspirational speeches earlier than the sport.”
There’s a former Lions captain who labored in the same means. And was equally wanting captaincy credentials.
Martin Johnson had by no means captained England when he was picked to guide the Lions in South Africa in 1997. He had solely skippered Leicester 9 occasions, filling in when Dean Richards was absent.
There have been by no means any doubts about his high quality as a participant. However he appeared to shrink from the highlight or the soapbox.
It turned out simply superb. Johnson’s quiet authority and instance gave Keith Wooden, John Bentley, Scott Gibbs and others the prospect to say their piece and pull the group collectively.
They received the sequence towards all expectation, beating the world champions 2-1.
There’s one other little bit of historical past that Warren Gatland and the Lions administration would possibly think about.
The Lions excursions of South Africa earlier than Johnson’s success got here when South Africa was a pariah state. Apartheid, South Africa’s formalised, state-backed racism, saved it off most groups’ itineraries.
However the Lions went regardless, enjoying in entrance of crowds the place the one black spectators have been in a small segregated part of the bottom.
Itoje could be the primary black British and Irish Lions captain. Siya Kolisi is South Africa’s first black Check captain.
To see the 2 shaking arms earlier than the first-Check coin toss on 24 July in Johannesburg could be a vastly highly effective picture.