Should England drop Maro Itoje? Our writers' opinions
‘Itoje has been quiet – but he's still the way forward’
By Charlie Morgan
We have seen from the omissions of Billy Vunipola and Manu Tuilagi – not to mention Jonny Hill, Jonny May and Jack Nowell – that Steve Borthwick will not be afraid of putting his own stamp on this England side with big calls. But I believe that Maro Itoje should be part of the way forward.
Undoubtedly, he has endured some quieter matches over the past year, notably the Premiership final. Saturday’s loss to Scotland probably counts as one of those, too. Itoje’s chief strength is defensive disruption and he tends to be more prominent in matches where opponents dominate possession. Just a year ago against Ireland, he produced one of the best individual performances from an England player in recent memory.
At the weekend, Ollie Chessum’s carrying output was greater. The loping Leicester Tigers man amassed 49 metres, with Itoje managing just five. The latter tends to attract criticism for penalties, and did concede one in either half – the first for overbalancing when attempting to jackal and the second for failing to retreat to an onside position as Scotland attacked on the cusp of England’s 22. It should be stressed that Chessum registered two equally avoidable penalties as well. Otherwise, Itoje amassed 12 tackles without missing one.
Only Ben Curry, who made 13 and missed four, completed more for England. As England’s line-out caller, two lost throws and an impotent maul at the end will have frustrated Itoje. That said, the variation in the build-up to Ellis Genge’s try was impressive. Delving deeper, Itoje hit 44 rucks, according to Opta. Jamie George was next on that list, racking up 43, with Chessum next on 31. Itoje emptied the tank.
England may need a weightier pack in matches against different sides, which could cause a rethink if Chessum’s influence continues to grow. Chessum set up behind his tighthead props at scrums on Saturday, suggesting that he is the stronger of the two in this area. David Ribbans is a talented player and Courtney Lawes will return at some stage, but England are undeniably short of a lumpy lock like Paul Willemse of France.
Joe Launchbury may come back into the equation, which could mean a choice between shifting Chessum to blindside or dropping Itoje. The latter would require someone else to call the line-out, of course. Borthwick will not neglect this vital aspect of the game.
'He has done enough to deserve England's trust'
By Oliver Brown
England’s long-term investment in Maro Itoje is such that they are hardly likely to jettison him after one errant game. But when Steve Borthwick is seeking to impose his authority quickly, sidelining even the once-dispensable Manu Tuilagi, the form of even the hardiest perennials demands to be scrutinised.
Itoje understands this, too, acknowledging how Borthwick has made it clear that every player must fight for his place. As he put it: “The fight for selection is non-negotiable.” On that basis, an insipid display by his standards against Scotland, in the head coach’s first game in charge, was unfortunately-timed. Combined with Ollie Chessum’s outstanding performance alongside him in the second row, and David Ribbans’ try-enabling offload against the All Blacks still fresh in the memory, his right to be in the starting XV looked to be, for the first time in seven years, in doubt.
Still, Borthwick has the perspective to appreciate the permanence of class. He recalls Itoje’s inspirational semi-final performance at the 2019 World Cup, a tournament where he won 11 turnovers, five more than any other player in Japan. He will be demanding a return to those heights, and fast. While Itoje’s slump is a worry, he of all players has done enough to demonstrate why he deserves to retain England’s trust.
‘There is no scenario in which Itoje will be dropped’
By Charles Richardson
Maro Itoje is a victim of his own success. He burst onto the scene and immediately delivered performances at a staggeringly high level, largely maintaining them ever since. We subsequently now judge Itoje to an extremely high standard - and rightly so - but that means when he slightly dips below world-class, like he did against Scotland, it is noticed and commented upon.
For the British and Irish Lions, England and Saracens, Itoje has been a standout performer and his impressive club form this season should not be overlooked. One quiet game does not override that.
Running the line-out is a crucial role and it is hard to assess from the outside how successful that has been. Admittedly, England lost three at the weekend on their own throw but only those in the England camp will be sure where blame lies for those specific incidents. The fundamental importance of the line-out caller is not in doubt, however, and changing that will bring further disruption to a new setup.
I cannot see any scenario where Steve Borthwick would drop Itoje, which is a stance I agree with.
‘The overreaction to Itoje’s recent performances has been hysterical’
By Ben Coles
England should not leave out Maro Itoje and I do not think they will. Some of the overreactions to his recent performances have bordered on hysterical, especially since we are only one game into the championship.
Given England suffered a defeat in the opening round, and Italy showed a huge amount of promise and potential against France, Steve Borthwick cannot afford to leave Itoje out.
England only have a couple of players that could be considered world-class and Itoje is among them, with the injured Tom Curry the other leading candidate for that bracket. Itoje’s six or seven out of 10 performances are more impactful than most other lock’s nine out of 10 showings.
I think most international coaches would laugh anyone out of the room who suggested Itoje should be dropped.