“He is back,” said Jamie George, with an emphatic flourish to underscore the point. The he in question was Maro Itoje, and the ever-effusive George was happy to have the chance to wax lyrical about his Saracens and England colleague after the lock’s starring role in Saturday’s win over Harlequins.
Itoje had been just about the defending champions’ best on his return from the World Cup against Leicester two weeks ago; on Saturday, he was even better. The second rower led the way throughout a derby demolition as Harlequins, who entered the weekend top of the table, were played off their own park. No wonder George had plenty to say.
“He is back in a big way,” the hooker emphasised. “He is as driven as he’s ever been. You can see it in the way he’s moving, you can see it in the way he’s talking, in the build-up in the week.
“It’s contagious. I’ve got a responsibility to show other people that too. You see Maro like that and I’m like, ‘I need to be there’. He’s a huge leader, he’s an incredible player and he’s backing his words up with his actions. I don’t have enough superlatives for Maro Itoje.”
It was a complete performance from Itoje, who has added lineout calling to his game over the last couple of years and helped manufacture a series of mauls that helped Saracens stomp all over their hosts. Itoje remains a proper pest in skirmishes close to the ruck, intelligently hassling young Harlequins nine Will Porter around the fringes throughout. He was even able to show off his long strides in open space on one 30-yard gallop soon after the half-time interval.
Most certainly, it was a performance that looked like the Itoje of old. It feels perfectly natural to be talking about the 29-year-old in world-class terms given the levels he has reached before but even the player himself has conceded he has been below his best over the last couple of years. This has been down, mainly, to a health issue, the specifics of which remain undisclosed but left Itoje “a little less energised”.
That he could still command a place in England’s team virtually unchallenged speaks both to Itoje’s level and a paucity of challengers for lock places over the last couple of years. Now, though, it would appear that Itoje is hitting top gear again. There were signs throughout England’s tournament campaign, where he was among Steve Borthwick’s most consistent performers even as others took the headlines. George believes there is more to come from the 29-year-old.
“I don’t know how much people know, but there was a lot of stuff going on [with Itoje],” George explained. “He’s getting back to his best, and probably better than his best. That’s the opportunity he’s got because he works so hard, he is so diligent and so professional. The world’s his oyster, as they say. It’s scary how good he could be and he keeps getting better. Goodness only knows how good he could be.”
Itoje is going to have to do plenty of heavy lifting over the next few weeks. While Saracens have, on paper, the best back five squad depth of any team in the Premiership, a horror run of injuries has left them with just two fit recognised locks. Callum Hunter-Hill is set to miss four months of action after his knee injury while both Theo McFarland, Nick Isiekwe and Cameron Boon are absent, too.
Mark McCall, Saracens’ director of rugby, confirmed after the win over Harlequins that the club may seek injury cover, particularly with Ben Earl – who left the Stoop on crutches and in a knee brace after an injury in the warm-up – now likely set for a spell on the sidelines.
Saracens are thought to be concerned that they may be priced out of keeping Itoje, with just one marquee player permitted under the Premiership’s salary cap regulations and club captain Owen Farrell also out of contract next summer. Salvation may arrive in the form of the proposed hybrid contracts in the new Professional Game Partnership, which is up for vote at Rugby Football Union (RFU) council in the coming weeks. There is doubt over the detail of a deal that would precipitate a number of radical shifts in English rugby but any agreement that keeps Itoje in the country would be most welcome – neither club nor country can afford to lose him in this sort of form.