There has been a creeping commentary in the media of late: of Maro Itoje being off his game, of something amiss with the man who was anointed a superstar when barely out of his teens.
Barely one minute into a revealing interview with the 28-year-old England lock, Itoje addresses the subject, and his response is not the emphatic pushback you might expect.
“I guess over the last year or so there have been things which have probably affected my conditioning, which has resulted in me being perhaps a little less energised,” Itoje says. “There have been injury bits, a few niggles, a few things that I’ve had ongoing which I didn’t know were ongoing.
“It was some health things behind, which I know have had an impact. Due to how I was feeling it probably wasn’t the quality of what I would expect for myself. All of that has kind of been resolved over the last three weeks. I’m now in, I think, a much better position.”
Itoje will say no more, as is his right, and nor he is entirely free of defiance. “I don’t think I’ve been terrible,” he says with a laugh, one of several throughout this half-hour chat at England’s hotel earlier this week. “I don’t think I’ve gone on the pitch being, you know, a liability. I still think I’ve made an impact, I don’t think I’ve been a dud on the field. It was an underlying thing, which none of us knew was going on. Through doing some checks, we were able to ID it and then rectify it.”
If no player is undroppable, Itoje in his eight-year senior career has come very close. While Eddie Jones was England coach he held him back for two matches in 2016 then picked him relentlessly, and Itoje now has 65 caps. The British & Irish Lions benched him for the first Test in New Zealand in 2017 before he commanded the second Test and was lauded by the travelling fans singing “Oh Maro Itoje” – and he started all three Lions Tests in 2021.
He was nominated for world player of the year in 2016, 2017 and 2021, he won the Six Nations three times, and in 2019 he won the Premiership and European Cup double with Saracens and reached the World Cup final with England. His fist-clenched celebrations of tackles and turnovers became motifs of an ability to change the flow of big matches.
Still, the former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio said of Itoje recently: “He’s 6/10 when England need him to be 9/10.” And ex-Saracens team-mate and Scotland second row Jim Hamilton said: “Something just isn’t quite right with him, definitely not the Maro of that 2019 World Cup semi-final against New Zealand.”
A look at statistics support the case, but only up to a point. Itoje’s tackle count per match in the current Six Nations is a career high of 16, but he is down on turnovers and his carrying has waned. All four England line-out takes in the win over Wales a fortnight ago were caught by Itoje. Perhaps he is being asked to do something differently, now Steve Borthwick is England’s head coach?
“Steve is just pushing me to be better – to be a more dominant player,” says Itoje. “He wants my actions to be of high quality. I feel as if there’s more to come. I’m excited to be feeling almost back to normal, to myself. You feel the energy, the bounce in your step. The other part is the GPS – you can see the improvements in the metrics, the data.”
Itoje says his difficulties began “last season”, but he name-checks his basketball heroes Shaquille O’Neal and Magic Johnson as sporting icons who came through tough patches. “Serena Williams is a living example of that.” He points out he supports Arsenal, as another example of emerging from the doldrums.
Chuckling again, Itoje adds: “The famous philosopher TI – I say ‘philosopher’, he’s a rapper – said something along the lines of ‘if you live for the cheers, you’ll die by the boos’. When things are going well it often feels like you’re a million bucks and nothing can touch you, when in reality that’s not the case. Constantly work on the process.”
As such, the World Cup in September is not even on Itoje’s immediate checklist. “The next five weeks are five potentially massive games,” he says, referring to England versus France this Saturday, followed by Ireland away, then his club Saracens’ matches in the Premiership and Champions Cup. “All great opportunities for me to continue to step forward.” But, tellingly, he also says: “When you play for those sorts of teams the expectation is always to win. When you don’t win, it’s always a little bit disappointing.”
With Jay-Z’s Roc Nation nurturing his image, and style magazines clamouring for cover shots, Itoje is a high earner, and his reputation has mostly survived his association with the Saracens salary-cap scandal. The club in turn adore their North London-born, Nigerian-descended totem. “I do want to play abroad at some point,” Itoje says. “But, God willing, I want all of my competitive rugby to be in England.”
There is, though, trouble at large. English clubs Wasps and Worcester went bust this season, and players in Wales are facing job losses and pay cuts. Rumours are circulating of England players seeking higher pay, in the context of a season likely to be split more clearly between club matches and internationals, possibly changing the way clubs look at salaries.
Itoje is embracing the future, and helping to shape it. “I’ve been in a couple of meetings [with the RFU] over the last couple of weeks and they’ve all been extremely positive. it’s good for those senior executives to hear the players’ point of view. Because ultimately, when we strip it all back, we all want the same thing. We all want the game to be in a great financial position.
“[England] can play the builders from down the road and they [Twickenham] will still be sold out. But I’d love the club rugby to be a bit more vibrant. We want the best players playing for their club as much as possible. If there’s a way we can open up the game and make it more accessible, that would be helpful as well.”