British and Irish Lions tour : Maro Itoje’s CV doesn’t have many gaps. Multiple Six Nations, Premiership and Champions Cup titles. Two World Player of the Year nominations. One Rugby World Cup final appearance. And not a lot of room for improvement.
When the British and Irish Lions squad is announced, in early May as things stand, an injury-free Itoje is a certainty.
But, despite all his success, does he have the credentials to captain the tour of South Africa?
It would buck the trend.
Sam Warburton had led Wales to a World Cup semi-final and a Six Nations Grand Slam before taking the Lions role.
Warburton’s predecessor Paul O’Connell had skippered Ireland and steered Munster to European glory.
Before the 2005 tour, Brian O’Driscoll had captained both province and country.
Itoje has done neither.
As a 20-year-old, he led a second-string Saracens to an LV Cup success. But Brad Barritt has been his captain in every club match that really matters. Owen Farrell and, previously, Dylan Hartley have been chosen to led England ahead of him.
He may be a global star, but very few have seen Itoje the captain. One of them is Joel Conlon.
When England Under-20s beat South Africa to win the 2014 World Junior Championship, Conlon scored the winning try and Itoje lifted the trophy.
A year later, Conlon joined Itoje at Saracens, where they shared a dressing room for three seasons.
“Maro was always a leader in the England age-grade group, but when he became captain in 2014 it was pretty new for him,” he said.
“He never felt pressured by it, but maybe he felt there was an expectation on him to be a certain way.
“I think that is the biggest change I have seen in Maro from then to now.
“He is not so worried about being too vocal anymore, he doesn’t really get people into a huddle and give a big inspirational talk, especially at Saracens where there are so many world class and older players.
“Maro would delegate different areas and share the responsibility of leadership. At Saracens, it never rests on one person’s shoulders. Brad might have the final word but Owen would talk about attack, Jackson Wray maybe talking defence, the scrum-half leading on the kicking game.
“Maro is very much into doing his job well and leading by example, in the way he applies himself and takes his own game and analysis to the next level.
“He is very, very driven and has incredible attention to detail reviewing his own performances and his own training.”
Former England scrum-half Danny Care saw Itoje’s stratospheric standards force his senior international team-mates to keep sharp as well.
“I have never seen him have a bad training session, let alone a bad game,” Care told Rugby Union Weekly.
“The energy, professionalism, dedication he brings day in day out has a knock-on effect of making everyone around him a better player – Owen is a bit more vocal with it, but Maro does it without talking.
“You have to be on his level every day, if not you get ‘the stare’ from Maro, which you don’t want.”
Much of the Lions’ mystique has been built on exactly what Itoje doesn’t do. Over the years, behind-the-scenes documentaries have captured pre-match team talks that raise neck hairs and pulse rates. They have become part of the touring tradition.
Farrell and Alun Wyn Jones, the other leading contenders to captain the side, deliver in spades on that front. Both are natural commanders in chief.
While those moments make good footage, Conlon believes Itoje’s leadership extends to places the cameras don’t reach.
Considered and controlled in interviews off the pitch, the 26-year-old has a different persona on it.
Itoje is a one-man pep-rally of back slaps and bum taps for his team-mates, and needle for the opposition.
In 2018, he joined Glasgow’s huddle as they mistakenly celebrated a disallowed try. In 2020, CJ Stander, who lost his shirt in a Twickenham scuffle with Itoje, said the second row’s ability to “get under everyone’s skin” was part of his greatness.
“He loves revving people up on the pitch, making a lot of noise and celebrating small victories,” said Conlon.
“It helps motivate him and the people around him – it is almost a technical part of his game.
“He is very considered person, a student of the game. Him shouting and screaming is not him losing control, it is all very planned out.
“Equally if you make a big hit or a big carry or a good decision, he is the first person to come over and tap you on the back and give you an encouraging word.
“They are the things you don’t see, but the little words and gestures mean a lot as a team-mate.
“Those subtle parts of leadership are a lot bigger if you are part of a team, rather than the inspirational speeches before the game.”
There is a former Lions captain who worked in a similar way. And was similarly short of captaincy credentials.
Martin Johnson had never captained England when he was picked to lead the Lions in South Africa in 1997. He had only skippered Leicester nine times, filling in when Dean Richards was absent.
There were never any doubts about his quality as a player. But he seemed to shrink from the spotlight or the soapbox.
It turned out just fine. Johnson’s quiet authority and example gave Keith Wood, John Bentley, Scott Gibbs and others the chance to say their piece and pull the team together.
They won the series against all expectation, beating the world champions 2-1.
There is another bit of history that Warren Gatland and the Lions management might consider.
The Lions tours of South Africa before Johnson’s success came when South Africa was a pariah state. Apartheid, South Africa’s formalised, state-backed racism, kept it off most teams’ itineraries.
But the Lions went regardless, playing in front of crowds where the only black spectators were in a small segregated section of the ground.
Itoje would be the first black British and Irish Lions captain. Siya Kolisi is South Africa’s first black Test captain.
To see the two shaking hands before the first-Test coin toss on 24 July in Johannesburg would be a hugely powerful image.