Itoje selection should be an inspiration for current schoolboys

Maro Itoje was named today in Stuart Lancaster’s 50-man England Training Squad for the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

If ever there were an inspiration for aspiring young rugby players this week it is surely Itoje. The versatile young Saracens forward is just twenty years old, and this time last year he was preparing for the 2014 Junior World Championship with England U20, which they went on to lift.

The year before, as a Harrow schoolboy after his move from St George’s Harpenden for 6th form, Itoje was a part of the England U18. How fast a star can rise.

He has long been marked as a potential star, he made his Saracens debut in the 2012/13 season as a schoolboy, coming off the bench in the LV= Cup game against Cardiff Blues, the first ever game at Allianz Park.

In the summer of 2012 he was named the player of the Players Player and Coaches Player of the England U18 South African tour, forming a superb partnership with the current Bath second row Charlie Ewels, then at Bryanston School.

Both Ewels and Itoje have risen excellently this season but for Itoje it has been truly stunning. He captained Saracens to the LV= Cup title, captained Saracens Storm to the Aviva A League title, and made his England Saxons debut back in February.

It was around then that he also began to force his way into the Saracens 1st XV, culminating in his selection and brilliant performance for Saracens in the European Rugby Champion Cup semi final against Clermont Auvergne.

Now Itoje finds himself in England’s wider training squad for the World Cup. Chances is are that he probably will not make the final 31-man squad, but just being in the 50 is a stunning achievement in itself.

With his ability to play both in the second row and the back row too, he certainly should not be ruled out though. Much of the talk surrounding Sam Burgess in this squad has centered around the possibility of him covering both 6 and 12, while Henry Slade’s ability to cover 10, 12, and 13 has many commentators seeing him as a real option – versatility is key when squads are so limited in size, Itoje could be a huge beneficiary of that.

Itoje is also a sign of how successful England’s U20 programme and the wider production line and ‘pathway’ has become. His side’s 2014 JWC title win was the second year in a row that England lifted the JWC, and four of that squad have also made the 50-man England training squad, Exeter Chiefs’ Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jack Nowell, and the aforementioned Slade, as well as Bath’s Anthony Watson.

George Ford, born just three days before Slade, could also have been in that squad but for management to decide, rightly, that he was already plenty experienced enough and that his game would benefit more from rest. After all he had been named IRB World Junior Player of the Year in 2011 at just 18, the youngest ever player to receive the award.

Observers can like or dislike the system, but what everyone can see clearly is that the leap from schoolboy to England international is a short one.

One player who is finding out all about that jump from school rugby to pro is Warwick School’s Jamie Shillcock who tonight will be on the bench for Worcester Warriors against Bristol in the first leg of the Championship play-off final.

Shillcock is another example of the stunning work and talent in schools rugby at the moment, and also shows that there is more than one route to the top. Not part of the England U18 set up, he forced his way into the England U18 Counties side before gaining a cap for England U19 as suddenly his career raced into overdrive in the last few weeks.

For Itoje it is really racing, and he could well make his first appearance for England (albeit uncapped) against the Barbarians on 31st May, should Saracens miss out on a place in the Aviva Premiership final.

Stuart Lancaster will name the squad to face the Barbarians at 5pm on Sunday after the Aviva Premiership finals, with the finalists not considered for selection. Gloucester players could also miss out should they reach the European Rugby Champions Cup qualification final.

The squad will then be partially reduced ahead of England’s Denver training camp, and then again for the World Cup warm up games against France, twice, in August. The final 31 man Rugby World Cup squad will be announced for the 31st August deadline before one final warm up against Ireland.

For Itoje that final 31-man squad will quickly become the dream, but right now in that 50 man squad he has surely achieved far more at this stage than he could possibly have dreamed as a schoolboy just a couple of years ago.

How fast that leap can be made, given the right attitude and commitment. To think he was sitting his University Politics exams last week. Shillcock knows that feeling, he was sitting an A-Level yesterday.

Today should be a pretty inspirational day for this year’s school stars.

England Training Squad:

Chris Ashton (Saracens)

Dave Attwood (Bath Rugby)

Brad Barritt (Saracens)

Kieran Brookes (Newcastle Falcons)

Mike Brown (Harlequins)

Luther Burrell (Northampton Saints)

Sam Burgess (Bath Rugby)

Danny Care (Harlequins)

Danny Cipriani (Sale Sharks)

Calum Clark (Northampton Saints)

Dan Cole (Leicester Tigers)

Alex Corbisiero (Northampton Saints)

Luke Cowan-Dickie (Exeter Chiefs)

Elliot Daly (Wasps)

Lee Dickson (Northampton Saints)

Kyle Eastmond (Bath Rugby)

Nick Easter (Harlequins)

Owen Farrell (Saracens)

George Ford (Bath Rugby)

Alex Goode (Saracens)

Dylan Hartley (Northampton Saints)

James Haskell (Wasps)

Maro Itoje (Saracens)

Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby)

Courtney Lawes (Northampton Saints)

Joe Launchbury (Wasps)

George Kruis (Saracens)

Matt Kvesic (Gloucester Rugby)

Joe Marler (Harlequins)

Jonny May (Gloucester Rugby)

Stephen Myler (Northampton Saints)

Ben Morgan (Gloucester Rugby)

Matt Mullan (Wasps)

Jack Nowell (Exeter Chiefs)

Geoff Parling (Leicester Tigers)

Chris Robshaw (Harlequins)

Henry Slade (Exeter Chiefs)

Ed Slater (Leicester Tigers)

David Strettle (Saracens)

Billy Twelvetrees (Gloucester Rugby)

Mako Vunipola (Saracens)

Billy Vunipola (Saracens)

Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby)

Rob Webber (Bath Rugby)

Richard Wigglesworth (Saracens)

David Wilson (Bath Rugby)

Tom Wood (Northampton Saints)

Marland Yarde (Harlequins)

Ben Youngs (Leicester Tigers)

Tom Youngs (Leicester Tigers)

England Fixtures:

31 May – England XV vs Barbarians, Twickenham, kick-off 3pm

15 August – England vs France, QBE International, Twickenham, kick-off 8pm

22 August – France vs England, Stade de France, kick-off 8pm (BST)

5 September – England vs Ireland QBE International, Twickenham, kick-off 2.30pm

18 September – England vs Fiji, RWC 2015, Twickenham, kick-off 8pm

26 September – England vs Wales, RWC 2015, Twickenham, kick-off 8pm

3 October – England vs Australia, RWC 2015, Twickenham , kick-off 8pm

10 October – England vs Uruguay, RWC 2015, Manchester City Stadium, kick-off 8pm

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