In what has been another enthralling weekend of Six Nations rugby, many of the questions have now been answered.
England are the 2016 champions, Italy are the wooden spooners, France are a still a shadow of their former selves and Ireland can score tries after all.
Grabbing the early headlines, Ireland demolished Italy in Saturday’s early game, running in nine tries in their 58-15 victory. One can’t help but feel sorry for their captain, Sergio Parisse, as he watched his side concede the match without any real fight.
Scotland too grabbed a noteworthy headline with their assured victory over France on Sunday; their first in ten years. In doing so, they handed England the title after their own victory over Wales in Twickenham on Saturday.
While all the headlines of the weekend focused on the results, there have emerged some very promising and exciting developments for England. It would appear, on the face of it, and according to the Red Rose’s defence coach Paul Gustard when speaking to the BBC, that England, in the form of new boy Maro Itoje, have unearthed what could be England’s answer to the mighty Paul O’Connell, who played his last game for Ireland in last year’s World Cup.
Man of the Match Itoje properly announced himself to the rugby world on Saturday with a huge performance for the Red Rose against Wales. The young lock was rampant in both attack and defence, displaying a confidence and experience that should not be possessed by a mere 21-year-old.
After the match, Twitter was alight with praise for the Saracens lock, with many declaring him a future captain of the team.
Itoje. Future England captain.
He's from the Martin Johnson mould.
— #RugbyToulon (@rugbytoulon_) March 12, 2016
There are some striking similarities between Itoje and the former Ireland captain, and all round rugby legend, O’Connell that would suggest that this high praise may not be misplaced, when comparing some statistics between the two men:
|Paul O’Connell||Maro Itoje|
|Height||6ft 6in||6ft 5in|
|Weight||17st 8lb||18st 4lb|
|Education||Computer Degree (*)||Politics|
|First Cap Age||22||21|
While you might expect second row forwards to be similar, the correlations continue.
Both were late to commit to rugby and excelled at other sports throughout their teenage years. O’Connell was a successful swimmer while Itoje represented England in athletics at U-17 level.
Their physical presence is reflected by these earlier pursuits. Both are extremely athletic in build and cut imposing figures. Without even speaking they command a certain presence on the field.
It is also clear that both are highly intelligent, with O’Connell having completed three* years of a degree in computer engineering before fully committing to rugby. For Itoje, he is currently studying for a degree in politics.
O’Connell’s story has been written and he is widely regarded as one of the finest second rows of all time. During his 14-year career he has redefined the role. The ex-Munster, Ireland and British and Irish Lions captain is now the yardstick against which all other locks are measured.
To date, Itoje has measured up extremely well. Receiving his first cap for England against Italy in this year’s Six Nations, he has made an immediate impact and is already a near automatic choice for the team sheet, after only three caps. On the field he has a similar style to O’Connell, in both how he takes the ball into contact and in how he engages at the ruck.
All the signs are there for Itoje to become a real superstar in world rugby. England have been lacking an obvious leader since the departure of Martin Johnson – who Gustard also compared Itoje to – in the mid 2000s so to see the emergence of such a talent in the engine room of the pack will be an exciting prospect for English and world rugby.
While this year’s tournament plaudits and accolades will go to Billy Vunipola for his barnstorming efforts at no.8, all eyes will be on Itoje for the future to see just how good he can become. With a World Cup some three and a half years out, Itoje may even lead England into that tournament as their captain.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena
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