Even if Maro Itoje and James Ryan did not play international rugby in the same position the pair would have a lot in common. In addition to being the forward totems of their respective nations they have both studied politics at university and share a strong sense of cultural history, with Itoje particularly fascinated by Nigeria’s past and Ryan’s great-grandfather having been involved in the 1916 Easter Rising.
Next summer it is quite possible the two men will have plenty of time to put the world to rights on the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa, with every prospect they will be shoulder to shoulder in the second row when the Tests commence. In the meantime, though, there are two feisty Anglo-Irish clashes to negotiate before either man can be considered first among equals.
The second of those key dates will be the last weekend of the 2021 Six Nations, the final round of major Tests before Warren Gatland names his Lions tour party. Will Eddie Jones’s England have kicked on further by then and begun to realise fully their evident potential? Or will Ireland have regrouped and rediscovered the steely belief that made them so hard to beat in the Joe Schmidt era? The first episode of a potentially intense mini-series at Twickenham this weekend should supply a few clues.
Listening to Itoje, in particular, it is clear how keen England are to rewrite avenge the piece of recent history that grates most, namely their Rugby World Cup final disappointment last year. Whatever other media smokescreens Jones may like to erect, it is no secret where he believes his squad can eclipse all-comers. Up front it already takes a seriously physical team to bully England and Itoje is adamant he and his teammates have plenty more in them: “My goal is to continually look to push the boundaries of what I can do and where I can go. My game is based around physicality and work rate and it is about having a higher impact in those areas. I think there is definitely room for improvement and for me to get better.”
Measuring himself against Ryan and others such as New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick, accordingly, is a game to be played by others. Opponents may look at Itoje’s octopus-like pilfering of the ball at lineouts and mauls, and wonder how they can compete, but the 26-year-old is less bothered about his rivals than himself.
“Obviously you watch rugby and see what other guys are doing, but for me it’s not really about them. For me it’s all internal, in terms of what I can do and how I can grow.”
Ryan, 21 months younger but a stone heavier and two inches taller, is marginally less eye-catching but equally effective whether wearing the blue of Leinster or the green of Ireland. It took 24 outings before he lost a game as a professional, including the 2018 Six Nations game at Twickenham when Ireland led 21-5 at half-time and finished up 24-15 winners. It is exactly that fast start, physicality and stroppy attitude that Ryan and friends need now as they seek to atone for three straight defeats to the English.
On the subject of stroppiness, it has not escaped Irish attention that Itoje can be – how to put this – slightly annoying to play against. To some, the orchestrated whooping and hollering that accompanies every defensive turnover or stifled maul is against the spirit of the game, but England’s prime suspect strenuously disagrees. “I have a contrasting view to the premise of your question. My celebrations, whenever there’s a small moment or a small victory within the game, almost have nothing to do with the opposition. I try as much as possible not to waste any energy on the opposition. My energy is towards my team, towards my teammates. It’s more about me or any individual championing a value or a behaviour that we respect as a team.”
There is also the small matter of Saracens’ relegation from the Premiership; even Itoje is finding it strange not having his club involved on the new Premiership season’s opening weekend. “It’s a little bit weird, to be honest. I was on Twitter the other day looking at all the rugby shirts. I was like ‘Where’s Saracens?’ I’d forgotten that we were down. I don’t really know when we’re going to be back. I know the boys are training and they’ve got a presumptive date in January, but you keep on hearing different stories and different things.”
Even after 40 caps for England – and a 75% win rate – that would be enough to unsettle many people. Not, it seems, Itoje. “Not at all. I’m at peace. I don’t know if you ever watched The Lion King but Timon and Pumbaa had a saying called Hakuna Matata. It means ‘No worries’. I feel with this type of thing, where you have no control over the outcome, you should try as much as possible to let it figure itself out and not lose any sleep worrying about X, Y or Z.”
The Lion King, eh? Maybe Itoje is trying to send a message to someone. In the shorter term, what matters rather more is keeping Ryan and Ireland at bay. England should extend their current winning streak to seven games but expect their visitors to put up a much stiffer fight this time.