Maro Itoje hailed as the Chosen One
MARO ITOJE has been labelled The Chosen One by his England team-mate James Haskell as the calls for the 21-year-old to be chosen to start his first Test grow louder by the day.
Itoje has been earmarked as one for the future since leading England to the 2014 junior world championship, and many believe that future has now arrived. Former England captain Lewis Moody joined the bandwagon yesterday, arguing Itoje should be picked to face Ireland on Saturday.
The 21-year-old's impact off the bench against Italy 10 days ago was considerable. It featured two turnovers in his 25 minutes on the pitch in a purple period which saw England score 22 unanswered points. The extra option the 6ft 5ins Saracen would provide at the lineout is what persuades Moody he should displace Chris Robshaw in the back row this weekend.
But if there is a sense on the outside that England might have a new superstar in their ranks, his new team-mates are pegging his feet firmly to the floor.
"We are fully aware of when the media or when people latch onto a player and bang the drum. We have all been there at one point. One minute you are flavour of the month, next minute you are persona non grata and should be thrown into a skip and never seen again," said James Haskell, the man Itoje replaced in Rome.
"At the moment he is riding that wave so we will obviously give him banter about being 'The Chosen One' and 'The People's Favourite' and so on. He has got more champagne than the whole of France for his man of the matches but we don't have to worry about his ego. He is very humble, very quiet and he works very hard.
England rugby team get on their bikes in training
I thought when he got his opportunity against Italy he came on and went well. "The thing with Test rugby is that it is very difficult to come in and be unbelievably sensational because it is a step up - that very rarely happens. His exposure against Italy was just as the Italians were dipping down so he was able to show his strength and get a couple of good turnovers with the physicality he has.
"When Eddie [Jones] decides to put him in, whether that is this week or in the future, he'll give a good account of himself. Everyone in this squad is ready to play because otherwise we wouldn't be here."
The England head coach, who memorably likened Itoje to a Vauxhall Viva, does not believe he is yet the finished article and has attempted to dampen the excitement around his emergence by putting him off limits for interviews. That has not stopped people talking about him.
He is a compelling character. A part-time politics student at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, he relaxes by penning poetry. The man who knows him as well as anyone in the squad as a rugby player is defence coach Paul Gustard, who coached him as a schoolboy at Saracens.
"The first time I saw him I thought, 'Gosh, he's big for a young kid'. He was massive," said Gustard. "We had him against a wall and his wingspan was incredible. He has this huge range which is probably one of the reasons why he is so effective through lineouts.
"It is one thing looking big but another translating that density into collisions against other big people. He did it straight off."
Is he ready for the ferocity of first whistle Test collisions? It remains more likely Jones will deploy Itoje off the bench against the Irish - and as a second row with Courtney Lawes released back to Northampton last night - but if so it will only be delaying the inevitable.
Three other impressive substitutes from the 40-9 victory at the Stadio Olimpico - Joe Launchbury, Joe Marler and Danny Care - have all put themselves in contention for starting spots at Twickenham while centre Elliot Daly will be involved at senior level for the first time from the bench after being kept on ahead of Luther Burrell.
"Elliot Daly has impressed in training and is now ready to be part of the match-day 23," said Jones last night.
England squad: Brown, Goode, Nowell, Joseph, Farrell, Daly, Watson, Ford, Care, B Youngs, Marler, M Vunipola, Hartley, George, Cole, Hill, Launchbury, Kruis, Itoje, Robshaw, Haskell, Clifford, B Vunipola
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