Maro Itoje: England lock feels like it was ‘opportunity missed’ against All Blacks and turns focus to Springboks

James While

Following England’s thrilling comeback to draw on Saturday, Planet Rugby features writer James While caught up with Maro Itoje to rake over the coals of the New Zealand match and to look ahead to South Africa.

It was a bizarre game at Twickenham as New Zealand raced into a healthy lead before tries from Will Stuart (2) and Freddie Steward helped England to a share of the spoils.

Despite the fact that England looked dead and buried at 21-6 down and with 25 minutes to play, Itoje was frustrated with how the game went and particularly how it finished, with further discontent about how much pressure New Zealand exerted on England.

Opportunity missed for England

“To be honest it kind of feels like an opportunity missed. Early in the week Ben Youngs said sometimes you play the All Blacks and you get to the end of the game and you say ‘how did that happen? How did we allow that to happen?’ and it felt like one of those games today,” he said.

“Fair play to them, they are a good side, they put us under a lot of pressure in the first half. We just didn’t get out of the blocks how we wanted to, we left it until the second half where all the pressure was on us to finally be free and finally play this type of rugby that we want to play.

“Rugby is a game that doesn’t always go your way. What we did show was an incredible amount of resilience. A lot of teams would have given up or faded away after the first half they delivered and they did perform well in the first half. But we stuck in it and fought for the final result.

“We were probably five per cent off in the first half and that five per cent is a big difference. Their first try was an intercept try, so you are already fighting after about three minutes. They didn’t do anything that was particularly surprising, we know that they are a good team, we know they punish you if you are not accurate and we weren’t accurate and they punished us.”

Itoje added: “All week we spoke about we don’t want to be a team that is dictated to, our feelings that are dictated by the scoreboard. We want to be a team that is consistent regardless of whether we are winning, it was all about keep going after them, keep believing and it came to fruition.

“We have an incredible amount of potential in this team, we just need to unlock it. We are showing it in patches but we need to have that 80 minute game.

“We are spending more and more time together and are becoming more and more cohesive so hopefully it will come.

“A lot of other teams would have fallen away, especially when you are 25-6 down, that is quite a hefty gap, especially in international rugby, but we showed the mental resilience to stay in it, stick in it, keep on believing. That aspect demonstrates a little bit of growth in terms of our team and our mental robustness.”

South Africa next at Twickenham

With South Africa only one week away for Itoje and England, and with a move back to blindside flank already hinted at by Eddie Jones, the Saracen believes that the way his team finished has given them a little bit of momentum to take into the Springbok fixture.

“South Africa at Twickenham next week – I’m really looking forward to it,”  he continued.

“I only wish the game is a little bit sooner because we left a lot out there and it would be nice to continue that momentum. Whilst the second half was a bit more how we want to play, next week is an opportunity to play how we want to play for the full 80 minutes.

“Next week, all roads lead to Twickenham. Hopefully we are going to come back and play with the energy which we ended the game with today.

“It’s a great challenge. South Africa haven’t changed the way they play since – I well, I don’t know – maybe their first game in international rugby!? Strong set-piece, strong kicking game, strong defence. So it’s about what we do and that’s the exciting thing about the week to come. I think it will be a great game and I’m looking forward to it.”

READ MORE: Autumn Nations Series: Five takeaways from England v New Zealand