Analysis: What Itoje can offer England at six

Date published: January 18 2017

In Maro Itoje England have a rugby player blessed with freakish power, athleticism, intelligence and skill.

He’s also someone who can be moved around to combat specific opposition strengths or to accommodate new impact players for England. All this means that the talk about moving Itoje to blindside flanker has increased, especially with an exceptionally strong second row and an injury weakened back row.

In this article, we look back through the Camden-born player’s international appearances to determine how he would fit in the six shirt.

The most important thing to remember is that Itoje has played at six previously, in fact his debut was at six against Italy and against Australia he often found himself in the back row late in the game. Traditionally, the role of a six is to rack up tackling figures and free up the workload for your other back row mates to turn ball over and make a high number of carries.

However, the tradition is being challenged of late with more back-rows sharing the tackles with the expectation that carries and metres will also be shared.

With this in mind, let’s look at what Itoje can do in defence, attack, and at the lineout and how he can take these skills into a possible start at six in the upcoming Six Nations.

Defence

Defensively, Itoje hasn’t stood out since his debut for England. In the three games he played in the Six Nations he had a tackle success rate of 83 percent, not bad by any measure, but not great either. Especially when compared to Robshaw’s figures of 92 percent with 30 more tackles but two fewer tackles missed. In the below GIF we see Itoje’s first miss in international rugby.

Playing at six, in defensive lineouts, he peels off to stay wide on the blindside and wait for the Italians to attack back towards the right. This means that he is left partly isolated at the end of the defensive line and with two attackers coming at him he ends up lunging at the ball carrier and missing the tackle.

If England continue to leave their blindside flanker out wide after lineouts then oppositions will look to target Itoje until he proves he can handle the defensive duties.

Compare his position above to where he defends when playing at lock against Ireland. He’s much closer to the action and this eases the defensive load as there’s less confusion regarding who to tackle.

In the two below clips, Itoje is again playing lock and again defending the narrow channel. He’s moving from ruck to ruck and settling in the A or B defensive position. There’s nothing wrong with this when playing as a lock but England will want him to spread wider when playing as a flanker and sacrifice the sheer number of tackles for a more difficult set of defensive challenges in the wide positions.

Finally, although questions remain over whether Itoje can consistently defend the wide channels, there are very positive signs about his open field tackling. Such as this hit he makes on Alex Cuthbert when the Welsh winger has made a break.

This suggests that if there are any teething problems with a potential move to blindside flanker, at international level, they will be because of a lack of familiarity rather than ability.

Attack

During the tour to Australia, Itoje ran for 12 metres in eight carries – across all three Tests. Those aren’t great stats and fall some way behind the numbers put up by Robshaw, who Itoje would theoretically be replacing.

However, these numbers are abnormal for the lock who can normally be relied upon to run for double figures in around six carries per game. But, if moved to six, he will be expected to contribute at the same level as Robshaw, around ten carries and 20 metres, and maybe even higher due to the injury to Billy Vunipola.

Clearly Itoje is a very good ball carrier, even as a lock he wouldn’t have made it to this level without that skill, but one of the big questions is whether he can sustain a game plan where he is asked to double or even triple his standard number of carries.

What is promising for the Saracens player is his ability to gain an extra yard or two after contact. Turning a five-yard carry into a six-yard one doesn’t sound like much but if you can go beyond the tackler you’re increasing your chances of winning a penalty for not rolling away and at the least you’re going to be speeding up the ball for your scrum-half.

One thing that certainly isn’t a concern for Itoje is his ability at the breakdown. If given the number six shirt, Eddie Jones would like to see his young charge get involved a little less and turn some of that workload over to the locks.

His body position in the example above is absolutely perfect and turns a potentially slow ball situation into good attacking ball. What England could choose to do is deploy him a little wider, like in defence, and have him back up Watson, Nowell or Joseph when they attack the wide channels.

In this wide area he would also be able to showcase his sure hands and decent pace. As the clip above shows he would be able to pick his holes to attack and if the ball didn’t end up with him he would also be there to secure the ball at the breakdown.

The risks of attacking wide are significantly reduced when you have someone with lock-like immovability securing ball at the ruck.

Lineouts

Itoje is one of the best lineout operators in the world, and combining him with two locks would significantly strengthen an already excellent set-piece for England. As you can see in the clip below, George Kruis can lift and so England could use Itoje and both locks in the lineout, even with reduced numbers.

The possibilities are virtually endless for Eddie Jones and Steve Borthwick, for example they could run a five-man lineout with both props, both locks and Itoje which would provide three distinct jumping options. The prospect of Nathan Hughes and James Haskell coming at pace into a defensive line must be an enticing prospect for any England fan.

From a defensive prospect, Itoje’s ability to steal lineout ball would be more than enough to keep him in defensive lineouts. If opponents are particularly clever they could try to create mis-matches by reducing the numbers in their own lineout and trying to isolate whichever lock is left in the defensive line. It’s hard to see this being particularly troubling for the English coaching staff or players though.

As an aside, when I was growing up, one of the locks used to be lifted by both props. That has completely changed now and virtually everyone can lift.

In the above example, Itoje steals the ball at the back of the lineout, a big reason why he is able to do this is because he is being lifted by a flanker and a number eight and Faletau is getting lifted by both props who can’t get into position in time.

One final example of Itoje’s lineout skills, which, after some months away from England duties, we should all be keen to see again, it’s the same situation as before with Itoje reading and reacting to the play far quicker than his opposite number.

We should relish this period of lineout dominance, and I say that as a fully paid up Welshman as well. That’s when you know you’re a great player.

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Conclusion

It’s tempting to say that by starting Itoje at six, Eddie Jones would give up the mobility of a back row and replace it with another lock. In reality, Itoje is such a talent that moving him to six is a straightforward move. The flaws, highlighted above, are largely the result of unfamiliarity with the positioning. If there is an issue with his wide defence, it’s unlikely to cost England more than his lineout work will benefit them.

There are also question marks about his ball carrying durability. He has reached double carry figures in the Premiership and Champions Cup, but international rugby is that bit harder.

From an English perspective, that must be the biggest concern. Itoje will, at least, have to match Robshaw’s metres and carries and might have to pick up some of Billy Vunipola’s slack as well. If he can’t do that and Nathan Hughes, or an alternate number eight, and James Haskell have a poor game those numbers will have to come from somewhere, or they will miss the freedom that front-foot ball gives them.

His lineout work, and ability to help out when receiving the kick-off, is truly exciting, and I’m hugely looking forward to seeing what Borthwick cooks up at the lineout. There’s so much to like about a move to six that I’m incredibly hopeful that Eddie Jones’ positive murmurings don’t turn out to be misdirection.

by Sam Larner

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