When England Rugby assembled for their maiden training camp on Sunday evening Eddie Jones was well aware that almost immediately he would need to condense his number down and release a chunk of players back to their Aviva Premiership clubs.
When you looked at 33 named in the EPS there were individuals that you knew would be heading straight back to their clubs due to others being first-choices in their respective positions; the likes of Semesa Rokoduguni, Josh Beaumont and Matt Kvesic to name but a few.
Prior to this first week of preparation Eddie Jones was clear about the fact that he wouldn’t be handing too many International debuts out at Murrayfield. Instead a Valentine’s weekend in Rome would be the place where he would throw in a few new faces however many still believed that two players in particular, Elliot Daly and Maro Itoje, would be given a shot.
While Elliot Daly had to sit at home and watch Wasps gain their first victory over the Northampton Saints in 10 years, Maro had the opportunity to loudly re-state his case while playing for Saracens against Bath Rugby.
So much has been penned about the former Harrow School and St George’s Harpenden second row in a very short space of time and speaking to him and watching him play rugby you can understand why. The Saracen is an extraordinary young man, in so many ways, and is truly deserving of the plaudits being laid at his door.
On Saturday afternoon, as a collective, Saracens’ first-half wasn’t up to their usual standards. Instead the home side let Bath Rugby take charge and found themselves staring at a 13-0 deficit at the break.
After the match Mark McCall was quick to praise the leadership of Brad Barritt who he said ‘did all of the talking at half-time and during the game’ in order to guide the resurgence however even he couldn’t deny the influence that his young lock had.
After the break Maro set the standard for the rest of the side to follow and led by example, as all great leaders do. His work-rate was astounding and with every carry he lifted the side forwards towards their pursuit of one of their biggest comebacks in recent times.
Maro Itoje may be a young man however he doesn’t play or act like someone that is fresh onto the professional scene. Now, his physicality and rugby brain commands that opponents take note of him and he propels his team forwards with confidence and prowess.
The calls are there that Itoje is a ‘FEC’ aka future England captain and while he hears them they do not entertain a great deal of space in his mind. Of course we, as external observers, can discuss that label and its merits at length and in my opinion the shoe/label fits. So often we’ve seen ‘the next big thing’ come through and be spoken about until the cows come home only to see them fall short of the mark. However, with Itoje you have the sense that he is treading exactly the right path towards a great International career filled with England honours and the captaincy.
Before Dylan Hartley was handed the role some called Eddie Jones instate Itoje in the role early and stick with him through until 2019. Personally I believe that would have been a mistake and believe that Jones has done the right thing. For all of his potential, outstanding leadership qualifies and current form the Saracen needs to be given the opportunity to develop and grow within England’s squad and then emerge from there as their natural leader.
Ultimately Eddie Jones’ selection calls are understandable, away against Scotland is a horrible opening fixture for England and as a new head coach sticking with experience is the most sensible route towards victory. That said, I believe that few would have complained if they had seen the names Daly and Itoje in the retained 23 and I hope that both will gain their opportunities in the not too distant future.
By Emma Thurston
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