Saracens vs Harlequins match report: Maro Itoje plays captain's role to highlight England prospects

Saracens 25 Harlequins 20

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Even if they show only a fraction of the free-scoring finesse that marked their missionary visit to Soldier Field in Chicago a couple of days ago, New Zealand are more than capable of beating England at Twickenham this weekend – especially as they are likely to pick their first team rather than their also-rans. If a fourth consecutive victory for the silver fern over the red rose duly comes to pass, the odds on the tourists retaining their world title next year will be profoundly mean. Oh well. There’s always 2019.

This is not quite as dire as it may sound to English ears, for there are good reasons to believe that Stuart Lancaster’s England charges have a significantly better chance of recapturing the Webb Ellis Cup in Japan in five years’ time than on home soil 11 months from now. One of those reasons – perhaps the most significant one – goes by the name of Maro Itoje. Maro who, you say? Stop asking daft questions and get used to the name.

Itoje is less than a week out of his teens – he turned 20 last Tuesday – yet Saracens, as hard-headed as they come, were happy to run him as captain in Sunday’s Anglo-Welsh Cup derby with Harlequins, their nearest and not-so-dearest from the wrong side of the river. This was nobody’s idea of a small deal, for it involved him telling some very serious people what to do. These included an Argentina Test prop in Juan Figallo, a Scottish international lock in Jim Hamilton and the ruthlessly competitive Namibian captain Jacques Burger, who is even more scary around Halloween than he is at every other time of year. But it seems Itoje was born to lead. The son of Nigerian parents, he guided England’s Under-20 side to a world title in Auckland last June and has been barking out the orders at second-string level since Saracens decided to accelerate his development at the start of the current campaign. According to Joe Shaw, the skills coach at Allianz Park, he is a natural, pure and simple.

“I think you’ve just seen yourself that he is a fantastic talent,” Shaw said after watching the blind-side flanker produce a command performance. “I also think his contribution shows where we are as a club. It doesn’t matter if you’re 18 or you’re 35: if you have something of value to say, people will listen. Maro was happy to lead those  big-name players, because he knew that if he needed to ask for advice, they’d give it to him.”

Itoje played as a second-row forward at international age-group level and there are insiders at Saracens who think he will play his highest-profile rugby in the engine room. “He’s growing in size and man-strength every day,” said Shaw. Given that the man-child is already 6ft 5in and 18st-plus, this was a trifle disconcerting to hear. He introduced himself to Quins by smashing seven bells out of the unsuspecting full-back Ross Chisholm – a perfectly legal assault conducted in the best possible taste, as Kenny Everett might have said – and then won his side a penalty with a display of back-foot strength that denied his opponents a turnover they had long assumed was theirs.

By way of a follow-up, he ripped precious possession from the hands of highly regarded flanker Luke Wallace, defended aggressively at No 8 on opposition ball, pick-pocketed the visitors at a dangerous ruck on his 22 and went within a marginal “video ref” call of bagging the opening try. More impressively still, all this was accomplished in the first dozen minutes or so.

Lancaster, the England head coach, makes it his business to know pretty much everything about virtually everyone who might be rising through the Premiership ranks, so we can be certain he has Itoje’s future mapped out in minute detail. His most recent pronouncement on the subject? “He is,” he remarked last week, “quite a player.”

There were one or two others on show here who looked as though they might amount to something substantial come 2019. Scott Spurling, the 21-year-old Saracens hooker, showed skills that may or may not rival those of the South African folk hero Schalk Brits in the fullness of time. Meanwhile, there was a performance of considerable grit and determination from 19-year-old Quins loose forward James Chisholm.

Thanks in no small part to the No 8’s unstinting effort in adversity, the visitors might have pinched victory late on, having dragged themselves back into the contest through second-half tries from the prop Mark Lambert and the wing Charlie Walker. This would have been rough justice for Itoje, but he would probably have dealt with it. On this evidence, he can deal with anything.

Scorers: Saracens Tries Taylor, Ellery, Wilson. Conversions Spencer 2. Penalties Spencer 2. Harlequins – Tries Lambert, Walker. Conversions Swiel 2. Penalties Grimoldby, Swiel.

Saracens B Ransom; M Ellery (J Wilson 42), N Tompkins, D Taylor (M Bosch 51), C Fercu; N Mordt, B Spencer; R Gill (R Barrington 58), S Spurling (B Sharman h-t), J Figallo (B Alo 51), J Hamilton (N De Jager 51), M Botha, M Itoje (capt), J Burger (M Hankin 62), E Joubert.

Harlequins R Chisholm; C Walker, G Lowe, J Turner-Hall, O Lindsay-Hague; L Grimoldby (T Swiel 46), K Dickson (capt); M Lambert (D Marfo 68), R Buchanan, W Collier (K Sinckler h-t), G Merrick, S Twomey, J Trayfoot, L Wallace, J Chisholm.

Referee L Hodge (Wales).