‘Exceptional’ Maro Itoje a future England captain in the making, says veteran Nick Easter
England stand on the verge of their first Six Nations Grand Slam for 13 years with the Eddie Jones era beginning better than most could have expected. A blend of gritty and determined victories paved the way for Maro Itoje and Elliot Daly to be blooded into the senior set-up, with the former turning in a man-of-the-match performance against Wales a fortnight ago to effectively seal the championship crown with a game to spare.
Itoje’s rise to potential international superstar has been well documented, to say the least. The former England Under-20 captain, who oversaw the youth side’s successful Under-20 World Championship campaign two years ago, nearly forced his way into England’s Rugby World Cup squad last autumn, impressing one red rose veteran who believes the young Saracens forward is an England senior captain in-waiting.
Nick Easter was recalled to the England squad when injury struck down Billy Vunipola, and having trained with Itoje in the warm-up camp, he agrees with those who have tipped him to go all the way to the top of the game.
“I don’t think they’re far wrong,” says Easter when asked about Itoje’s captaincy potential. “He captained the junior team to their World Cup success so he’s got experience in it, albeit not at a senior level but a lot of the guys he plays with are in his age group. He certainly has the respect of the senior guys. You can see after two games how well he’s done.
“Yes, he’ll have to pull a few more runs together like that but I don’t see that being an issue. It’s one for further down the line but at the moment I think Dylan Hartley is doing a great job.”
Why has Itoje taken to international test rugby – the toughest and most cut-throat stage in the game – like a duck to water?
“He’s got the genetics, he’s a powerful man and he’s fit,” adds Easter. “He’s got a very mature head on his shoulders and he’s a very very humble guy. He was in the World Cup camp with me and was very mild mannered. He got on with his own business but trained the house down, performed 100% every time, not leaving anything in the tank.
“He is a young and very talented guy who has been in a very successful youth set-up, winning the World Cup in 2014 as well as being part of a very successful Saracens side. That sort of confidence and belief and being in successful teams is rubbing off on him along with his exceptional ability.”
While Itoje has made his presence felt in the second-row, it’s nothing compared to what his club-mate Vunipola has been doing behind him. The No 8 has come of age this year, having found a way to up the incredible standard he set in last year’s Six Nations by shining in all four of England’s games so far this year.
The 23-year-old has beaten more defenders than any of his team-mates this season along with completing the most carries of any player in the championship, but Easter suggests that Vunipola’s recent form can be credited to a significant improvement in his all-round game, rather than simply becoming a more destructive force in attack.
“I think Billy’s been good for a while now,” says his Harlequins counterpart Easter. “I thought last year in the Six Nations he was exceptional. When I came back in to the side he was playing a full 80 minutes, and that was the first time he was playing a full 80.
“I think his match fitness has got better, his understanding of the effect he can have on the game has probably got a bit better. He might have tried to take on the world a little bit originally, and he’s perfectly capable of doing that given how destructive he is, but I just think his all-round game on the floor is exceptional. People talk about his carrying and how he draws in defenders two or three at a time to make tackles and gets over the gain line that way.
“But also his work in defence. He makes an awful lot of turnovers, whether that be on the floor, holding them up in a choke sort of tackle – he doesn’t shirk that side of it. To carry that amount of weight around and still have that many involvements and be that destructive as he has been in this Six Nations and was last year too, shows that he’s got world class potential and he’s not that far off at the moment.”
Despite his England career coming to an end after last year’s World Cup as Jones looked towards the future, Easter is still training as hard as ever to help with Harlequins’ Premiership campaign this season.
Part of that has included testing himself out against athletes in other physical sports such as boxing, football and mixed martial arts. While the rigours of rugby union are clear for all to see, how do they shape up against the best of those who grace the square and octagon ring – as well as one footballer known for his brute strength?
To find out, Easter went up against the boxer George Groves, the footballer Adebayo Akinfenya and UFC stars Luke Rockhold and Antonio ‘Big Nog’ Nogueira in the Finish The Fight challenge to find out who harboured the most strength and speed – measured by Strike Research to celebrate the release of the new game UFC 2.