Former Springbok hooker Schalk Brits says British & Irish lock Maro Itoje boasts the cerebral gifts to complement his natural athletic strengths, writes CRAIG LEWIS.
Brits, who retired after featuring for the Boks at the 2019 World Cup, played alongside Itoje during his breakthrough years at Saracens and believes the softly-spoken England star could emerge as one of the standout players in the three-Test series against South Africa.
“From an athletic outlook, this guy was ready from a very early age. The locks like to say they’re the most intelligent members of the pack, and I have to say Maro really is right up there. He’s got a political degree and if I’m not mistaken he then did a post-grad, and now he’s studying for an MBA.
“Maro’s a very sharp individual who dedicates himself to whatever he throws himself into. Like many other players, in my early years I didn’t really want to understand the intricacies of the game. I just wanted to have the ball in my hands and run.
“He’s different; Maro is a real student of the game and a master at the lineouts. His dedication in the gym, on the pitch and even away from the game when studying is something special. He’s calculated and sharp, and just has a great drive to succeed, to win and to be the best. That’s why I think he will play a big role in this Lions series.”
Interestingly, Itoje will enter the 2021 tour on a different footing to four years ago when he was the youngest British & Irish Lions squad member, and although he only started two of the three Test matches against New Zealand, the All Blacks won neither of those games.
Jonathan Davies was ultimately voted the Player of the Tour by his peers in 2017, but Itoje wouldn’t have been far away from taking those honours.
He also featured in three of the warm-up matches against the Blues, Crusaders and Maori All Blacks. In total, Itoje completed a whopping 49 tackles on tour, as well as making 45 carries and forcing three turnovers. He also ruled the skies with 12 lineout wins and a steal.
“When the Lions toured New Zealand he was the youngster in the squad, but now he is a more well-rounded player who offers a lot more than just brute strength,’ Brits tells SA Rugby magazine.
“He’s got four more years of experience, he is more battle ready and it will be interesting to see how much better he performs in a Lions jersey. Although from the Springbok perspective, hopefully he doesn’t play that well,” he adds with a laugh.