He may exude an air of calm and maturity far beyond his years on the pitch, but Saracens’ starlet Maro Itoje insists it is triumphing over his nerves that has seen him come of age in the Aviva Premiership Rugby this season.
After skippering Saracens Storm to Aviva A League triumph last term and England to an under-20 World Championship in 2014, many believe it is only a matter of time before the 21-year-old lock – who can also play flanker – is leading club and possibly even country.
Itoje has been immense in Aviva Premiership Rugby this season, starting eight of Sarries nine games so far in a run that up until last weekend’s loss at Harlequins had seen them sit undefeated atop the league standings.
But after being rewarded with a call-up to Eddie Jones’ first England squad for the upcoming Six Nations, Itoje is adamant the mental side of his game is where he has made the most progress.
“So far so good I think,” he said. “The weekend was a bit frustrating obviously, but generally I’m happy with how the season’s going. Hopefully we can get back on track this weekend and pick up where we left off.
“On a personal level I’ve got a little bit bigger, put on a little bit more weight. But mainly I think I can now relax a lot more.
“When I was under-20s and for a while after that I couldn’t relax before kickoff. Before I was very agitated, very nervous but I think the more I’ve played, the more I understand what I have to do.
“I understand more my role within the team and I’m very much more at ease. I think I now have the vision to see the bigger picture.
“I felt settled last year but I was still incredibly nervous – not to say I don’t get nervous but I’ve learnt how to control my nerves a lot better.
“I’m no longer worried or agitated before the games; I’m nice and calm and have clarity of thought.”
It will not be Itoje’s first taste of life at Pennyhill Park when he arrives for his first England training session later this month, after he was named in Stuart Lancaster’s 50-man World Cup squad but cut after three weeks.
That experience has left Itoje hungry to prove himself for the Red Rose, and off the back of his performances in Aviva Premiership Rugby he is confident the time is right for him to start for his country.
He said: “Well I think I’m comfortable with senior rugby, obviously I haven’t played international rugby at that level yet but I’m confident that I will be confident in that environment. Only time will tell.
“Unfortunately I was only with the squad for three weeks in the summer but I thought it was cool.
“A lot of the players that were there were players that I used to watch when I was in school so it was great to be amongst that calibre of player.
“I learned a lot about myself and I felt comfortable in that environment. I didn’t feel that I was out of my depth in any way so it was a good experience for me.
“Personally I thought I could have contributed. I always knew it was going to be tough but I did think I would last more than three weeks if I’m honest.
“I think I’m ready. I think, given the opportunity I would do well. I think if I’m put in that situation, I would give a good account of myself.”