Maro Itoje exclusive interview: Hunger and desire the name of the game for England and British and Irish Lions star

 
Ross McLean
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Itoje's hunger to improve is palpable

Whatever topic is discussed with Maro Itoje, his hunger to improve is overwhelmingly evident. It is so pronounced that the England and Saracens forward’s underlying message, to borrow from the Bachman-Turner Overdrive song, seems to be: “You ain’t seen nothing yet”.

That is a scary prospect considering the 23-year-old is already a two-time Six Nations, European Champions Cup and Premiership winner, not to mention a fully-fledged British and Irish Lion. But it would certainly tally given that, in many people’s eyes, Itoje is destined to be England captain.

As topics are deliberated high in the gods at Allianz Park, the desire for personal and professional development influences the vast majority, if not all, of Itoje’s carefully considered answers and is a common theme of the conversation.

Italy v England - RBS Six Nations
Itoje, like England head coach Eddie Jones, takes a dim view of complacency (Source: Getty)

He depicts his recent month-long absence due to a fractured jaw as empowering, despite a wariness of straying into oxymoronic territory, given that it provided the opportunity for introspection and mental stimulation away from the game.

Even his wish-list for 2018 is shaped more than anything else by an appetite for individual betterment and an ardent wish to ensure his output remains on a relentlessly upward curve.

“Ultimately it is about getting better. I’m still quite young and I feel as if I still have a lot of growth left in me,” Itoje tells City A.M.

“My goal is to go to training every day with the mentality of getting better, improve my understanding of the game, improve my physical attributes and my skill set.

“If I do that then hopefully I will keep improving and keep pushing and putting my hand up for selection.”

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Putting a hand up for selection is surely the bare minimum a pivotal weapon in the Saracens armoury and mainstay of the England set-up will attain, although perhaps such distaste for assumption is heightened by international boss Eddie Jones.

“He keeps us on our toes, he’s a great man-manager of players,” said Itoje. “He is very clear, there is no ambiguity as to his message or in what he is trying to get across.

“He is obviously a very intelligent coach and no matter what you have done or what you have achieved, he pushes you to get better. “You can always be better. It doesn’t matter if you are 23 or 33 you can always be better and he sets that agenda.”

Intelligent, erudite and always striving for more – that sounds like Itoje, while viewers of the DVD British and Irish Lions: Uncovered will also have witnessed the 6ft 5in lock being more than capable of articulating a point of view.

New Zealand v British & Irish Lions
Itoje was a vital player for the British and Irish Lions during their tour of New Zealand (Source: Getty)

Itoje’s leadership is being nurtured. Jones has entrusted him to direct operations at England’s lineout – the latest rung, it is widely assumed, on the ladder towards one day leading his country.

For now, though, he is observing and absorbing. Itoje’s capacity for learning and expression, exemplified by his study of politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies and penchant for writing poetry, is a well-worn tale.

As is his discussion on leadership with individuals from outside the confines of the rugby bubble, but theory is no match for on-the-job training.

Take Itoje’s Lions experience in New Zealand during the summer, where his name was bellowed by supporters to the tune of The White Stripes anthem Seven Nation Army. It proved to be another bout of personal advancement.

France v England - RBS Six Nations
The 23-year-old has been tipped to become England captain (Source: Getty)

“For me, it was definitely an eye-opener,” added Itoje. “I got to see how different world-class players operate, how different players tick, how different coaches think.

“I got to see how those coaches operate in a different environment and certain things they like to do and certain things they don’t.

“Warren Gatland is a top coach and it was the first time I have worked with Graham Rowntree in a bit of detail, Rob Howley and Neil Jenkins, and it was good to pick their brains.

“I think every experience, good or bad, makes you more rounded. This one definitely made me more rounded and more educated in terms of how different things are done.”

One man who failed to make that tour was oft-criticised Northampton hooker Dylan Hartley, who Jones recently felt the need to publicly back as England skipper for the Six Nations.

Itoje is set to knuckle down with Hartley during the championship, and continue perhaps to take traits from the leaders in his midst as he looks to mould his own views on effective command.

“He’s a very good captain, is Dylan. He sets the agenda well for the team and he’s clear and vocal,” said Itoje.

“I have been very impressed by him since I got into the England environment. He is very clear and a good speaker with the boys.

“He is a good communicator between the coaches and the players and he looks after the players’ best interests. Dylan’s a top guy.”

But whatever predictions are made about the former Harrow School pupil’s future, the modern-day Itoje was sorely missed by Saracens during their seven-match losing streak in a bleak mid-winter.

The versatile forward was absent for all but one of those defeats – he fractured his jaw in two places in the only game he played – but he is now firmly back in the fold as Sarries have gone some way to arresting their slump.

Saracens v Ospreys -  Champions Cup
Itoje is back in the Saracens fold after his jaw injury (Source: Getty)

“It was a tough period for the club but I think it will put us in good stead for the rest of the season,” added Itoje. “For a long time we have won games relatively easily and sometimes you can take that for granted.

“The club going through that patch of being a little bit unsuccessful has sharpened the desires of people in the squad a bit more. “Hopefully the plan for the long run is to draw from that and when we get into similar positions on the field then we can learn from it.”

Learning, desire and an aversion to complacency – the Itoje mantra.

Maro Itoje was speaking on behalf of Ricoh. Go to www.rugby.ricoh.co.uk to find out more about The Business of Rugby.

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