“He’s back,” Jamie George said, with an emphatic flourish to emphasize the point. The man in question was Maro Itoje, and the ever effusive George was glad to have the chance to speak lyrically about his fellow Saracen and England after taking the lead in the win on Saturday against the Harlequins.
Itoje was the best of the current champion in his return from the World Cup against Leicester two weeks ago; on Saturday, he was even better. The second row led a demolition of the derby as the Harlequins, who entered the top of the table over the weekend, were thrown into their own park. No wonder George had much to say.
“He’s back in a big way,” the hooker emphasized. “He’s as motivated as he has always been. You can see that in the way he moves, you can see it in the way he talks, throughout the week.
“It’s contagious. I have a responsibility to show that to other people as well. You see Maro like this and I’m like, ‘I need to be there.’ He’s a great leader, an incredible player and he’s backing up his words with his actions. I don’t have enough superlatives for Maro Itoje.”
It was a complete performance from Itoje, who added lineout calls to his game in recent years and helped manufacture a series of mauls that helped the Saracens step on their hosts. Itoje remains a real nuisance in skirmishes near the ruck, intelligently harassing young Harlequins scrum-half Will Porter on the peripheries. He was still able to display his long strides in open space in a 30-yard gallop just after the interval.
It was certainly a performance that looked like the Itoje of old. It seems perfectly natural to speak of the 29-year-old player in terms of world-class, given the levels he reached before, but even the player himself admitted he had been below his best in recent years. This was mainly due to a health issue, the specifics of which remain unknown, but that left Itoje “a little less energized.”
The fact that he can still command a place in the English squad practically unchallenged speaks as much to Itoje’s level as it does to the scarcity of contenders for guaranteed spots in the last two years. Now, however, it seems that Itoje is reaching the maximum again. There were signs throughout England’s campaign in the tournament, where he was among the most consistent players of Steve Borthwick, even as others made headlines. George believes there is more to come from the 29-year-old player.
“I don’t know how much people know, but there was a lot going on [with Itoje],” explained George. “He’s getting back to his best, and probably better than his best. That’s the opportunity he has because he works a lot, he’s very diligent and very professional. The world is his oyster, as they say. It’s scary how good he could be and he’s getting better and better. Only God knows how good he could be.
Itoje will have to do a lot of hard work in the coming weeks. Although the Saracens have, on paper, the best defense of any Premiership team, a terrible run of injuries has left them with only two recognized locks. Callum Hunter-Hill is set to miss four months of action due to a knee injury, while Theo McFarland, Nick Isiekwe, and Cameron Boon are also absent.
Mark McCall, Saracens’ director of rugby, confirmed after the win over the Harlequins that the club may seek cover for injuries, particularly with Ben Earl – who left the Stoop on crutches and with a knee brace after an injury in the warm-up – now likely to be set for a spell on the sidelines.
The Saracens are believed to be concerned about the possibility of not keeping Itoje, with only one marquee player allowed by Premiership salary cap regulations and club captain Owen Farrell also out of contract next summer. Salvation may come in the form of the proposed hybrid contracts in the new Professional Game Partnership, which will be voted on by the Rugby Football Union (RFU) council in the coming weeks. There are doubts about the details of an agreement that would precipitate a series of radical changes in English rugby, but any deal that keeps Itoje in the country would be very welcome – neither the club nor the country can afford to lose him in this kind of form.