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Opinion: Why England’s Itoje Is A Poster Boy For The Evolution Of Rugby

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 11: Maro Itoje of England takes a lineout ball during the International Test match between the Australian Wallabies and England at Suncorp Stadium on June 11, 2016 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

“Here we go again! Here we go again!” Maro Itoje can be heard shouting after a collapsed English scrum in the first Test match against Australia in Brisbane.

England are now back in the lead after trailing for the majority of the first half against the Wallabies and Itoje has once again been sensational for Eddie Jones’ side as he tries to motivate his teammates for another big scrum.

“Look at Itoje,”  Sky Sports’ rugby commentator Miles Harrison said to commentary partner Stuart Barnes.

“Definitely a real leader in the making, we know that, I know it’s early days but do you remember when John Eales burst onto the scene and he was given that nickname of ‘Nobody’? Because nobody’s perfect?

“I just wonder if England have found another ‘nobody’.”

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 11: Bernard Foley of Australia passes the ball as Maro Itoje tackles during the International Test match between the Australian Wallabies and England at Suncorp Stadium on June 11, 2016 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Maro Itoje isn’t nobody though, Eales and the Saracens man are nothing alike.

The former Wallabies captain is widely regarded as one of the best second-rowers of all time, if not the best, and epitomised the greatest part of what amateur rugby was. Unlike Itoje, Eales wasn’t a shredded physical force of nature, he wasn’t a powerhouse ball runner and he wasn’t an underage star at international level.

What he was was a winner, one of the greatest the sport has seen, winning two Rugby World Cups with the Wallabies as well as multiple Tri-Nations and Bledisloe Cup titles along the way.

He stood at 6 foot 7 inches, blessed with incredible hand-eye co-ordination, ball skills and pace for a forward, but he wasn’t as good a lineout jumper as Paul O’Connell or Victor Matfield. He was a good lineout jumper for his era, but he retired years before lineout jumping evolved and became as much of a chess match as it is today.

DUBLIN, IRELAND - FEBRUARY 08: Paul O'Connell (R) of Ireland claims the ball at a lineout as Alun Wyn Jones (L) of Wales looks on during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and Wales at the Aviva Stadium on February 8, 2014 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Eales was essentially a guy that struggled to make his First XV team at Marist College Ashgrove and was a more accomplished cricketer as a junior than he was a rugby player.

He played in a time when rugby was a lot more open and defences a lot less complex. He was a phenomenal athlete for those World Cup-winning Wallaby sides, but he played at a time when there weren’t a lot of phenomenal athletes.

There was no prop built like Tendai Mtawarira during John Eales time, there was no number eight that had the combination of power and speed that Pierre Spies possessed in the late 2000s and there were no Maro Itojes.

Itoje represents something more than just a future leader for England, he is a poster boy for the evolution of rugby.

The Camden native possesses raw physical gifts that we have yet to truly see from a second row of his caliber. He has a long way to go before he achieves anywhere near the same amount of success as John Eales, Victor Matfield or Paul O’Connell, but his international emergence this season represents something more than just another great second rower.

Nick Farr-Jones, who will go down as one of the greatest Wallabies ever, was the greatest Australian half-back until George Gregan came along with a quicker pass that had more zip. Gregan had a bullet pass and a great understanding with Stephen Larkham but often took four to five steps from the base of the ruck before passing.

Will Genia eventually succeeded Gregan but in the same vein as his predecessor, also took a lot of steps before passing. Nick Phipps eventually took over from Genia and as seen below the evolution continues.

Although Genia achieved tremendous success for the Wallabies during his time as halfback, the above analysis highlights the difference between him and Phipps as passers, and shows the evolution of the game in a time where every play and movement is subject to video analysis.

Itoje’s rise this season could be an anomaly, but it could also be a sign that Eales could be the last of his kind.

The Saracens lock is essentially a prototype of what modern locks could be. His unique blend of speed, power, profound athleticism and superior lineout jumping are all individual traits we’ve seen in locks before, but never quite put together in the one package.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 11: Maro Itoje of England takes a lineout ball during the International Test match between the Australian Wallabies and England at Suncorp Stadium on June 11, 2016 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

His ascension in professional rugby has been remarkable and has been predicted for the last 18 months in English rugby circles but even the optimists might not have predicted that he would be this dominant this early. His rise draws comparisons to Eales’ rise in Australian rugby during the early 1990s and you can’t help but think he could go down a similar path if this England team can maintain their current momentum.

Eales was affectionately nicknamed ‘Nobody’ because nobody is perfect, but Itoje isn’t nobody, he’s something else, and could potentially be something more.

Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.