It was Valentines Day 2016 when England last played Italy and Maro Itoje came off the bench after 54 minutes of England’s easy victory to win his first senior cap. What has happened between then and now is so remarkable that no England player has ever matched it, and probably never will.
Itoje was in the starting line-up for England’s next game against Ireland and, when fit, has played every time since. He has never been on the losing side and will be going for 10 out of 10 against Italy on Sunday.
In November this remarkable talent was named the best young player in the world by World Rugby. At 22 he has many more stellar seasons ahead of him.
But there is more. Before he made his senior debut Itoje had played at four age-group levels and captained England’s Under-20s to the 2015 Junior World Championship, where he was named player of the tournament.
While doing all this Itoje, son of Nigerian immigrant parents, studied on a scholarship at Harrow and is now taking a degree in politics at London’s SOAS (formerly School of Oriental and African Studies). “It helps me keep my mind off rugby,” he says. “It gives you a chance to lead a balanced life.”
When Mark Pougatch presents ITV’s rugby coverage he is surrounded by legends of rugby, World Cup winners such as Sean Fitzpatrick of New Zealand, Michael Lynagh of Australia, and Jonny Wilkinson and Lawrence Dallaglio of England.
“What Maro Itoje did last year was phenomenal,” says Pougatch. “We had all these big names in the studio and it was remarkable to hear them all say the same thing. ‘Oh my god, he’s as good as everybody says he is.’
“I can’t recall there ever being so much expectation about an England player before.”
At least Dallaglio knew what was coming. In his glory years for England he played alongside Richard Hill, who was Itoje’s mentor at Saracens.
“I had heard a fair bit about him from Richard Hill before he started playing in the first XV,” says Dallaglio. “He has been on England’s radar for a long time.
“Under the guidance of Mark McCall at Saracens and Eddie Jones with England he puts in consistently world-class performances. They have both worked a lot on his leadership role, and he will be a leader, as will Owen Farrell.
“It’s important to have players like that – the more leaders you have, captains in all but name, the better you’re going to be as a team.
“At the Under-20 World Cup Itoje was the really standout player, and he was exposed to international rugby early – but not too early. He was quite rightly named the Breakthrough Player of the Year.
“Often it takes time to acclimatise at Test match level, maybe 10-12 games, but he moved in seamlessly and you could see straight away that he feels at home.
“It’s as if he’s much older than his years – he has shown himself to be one of the best in the world. That’s great news for England, and if he carries on improving, avoids the many distractions off the field, he can become one of the greats. He is exceptional.”
England have other world-class players, says Dallaglio – largely thanks to the remarkably successful new coach.
“What Eddie Jones has done is to bring in a refreshing honesty about the state of English rugby. For far too long England have massively underachieved.
“He said at the start that England don’t have any world-class players and that made an immediate impact, it generated players’ thoughts about themselves.
“The first thing potential world-class players need is to understand where they are right now, to have their own reevaluation of what world-class actually means, to understand that you have to set your own minimum standards and never, ever drop below them.
“As a result we are having world-class players emerge. He has shifted the dial. He knew England had the potential and they have done better than anyone expected, even Eddie himself.”
Farrell, who has been in superb form, is a clubmate of Itoje at Saracens, who also provide England – when fit – with Mako and Billy Vunipola, and George Kruis.
“Historically, England’s best sides have been driven by a core of players from one club, and that is what is happening with Saracens,” says Dallaglio.
“They are right at the top of world rugby. They are spearheaded by Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje. They will get better and better. The potential is huge.”
ITV’s live Six Nations coverage continues with Ireland v France from 4.15pm on Saturday and England v Italy from 2pm on Sunday.