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If you want to learn about a poacher’s mind-set and methods, ask the game-keeper. JP Doyle refereed Maro Itoje in 10 Premiership matches between January 2015 and December 2018. He also oversaw the Saracens lock during a number of England training sessions.
Penalties derailed Eddie Jones’ side against Wales last weekend, and Itoje was the chief culprit. Of the 14 England misdemeanours identified by Pascal Gaüzère, five were attributed to Itoje. But there is a conundrum, here.
Itoje’s blend of athleticism, opportunism and intelligence makes him one of the world’s most disruptive defenders. A turnover of possession often swings momentum in close matches and he is able to win the ball back for his team from tackles, mauls and rucks with remarkable regularity.
What is more, Itoje’s capabilities send ripples through matches. His early charge-down on Kieran Hardy, for example...
How does Itoje stay on the right side of the risk-reward trade-off, though?
First, how bad is the penalty problem?
After the loss in Cardiff, Itoje has now conceded 65 penalties and three free-kicks over his 46 England caps. Doyle contextualises his infringements at the Principality Stadium on Saturday as “a mixture of tough calls, slight technique break-downs and flat-out penalties he got wrong”.
Offence number three – Itoje stripping the ball away from Hardy – was a 50-50 in Doyle’s mind. Josh Navidi and George North completed similar steals for the hosts that went unpunished.
Number five, which saw Itoje collared for offside at a second-half lineout, could have been attributed to a poor lift. Doyle reckons Itoje was attempting to free himself from the Wales drive as assistant referee Frank Murphy alerted Gaüzère.
In his post-match interview, Jones suggested that Itoje can be “over-refereed” and drew a parallel with Australia great George Smith. Smith, a pioneering and prolific pilferer, wore dreadlocks until 2006 and must have been more conspicuous for that hairstyle.
As much as Itoje’s all-action style puts officials “on red-alert”, his imposing frame also catches the eye in the most hotly-contested areas of the pitch.
“He’s six foot five, wears a scrum-cap and is hard to miss,” Doyle says. “You don’t walk past the Eiffel Tower and not see it!”
Doyle does not agree that Itoje is targeted, but acknowledges that his relentless nature keeps officials on their toes: “He makes big, open-field moments. As a referee, you have to make an accurate decision.”
The case for not changing too much
Wales head coach Wayne Pivac questioned why Itoje did not receive a yellow card on Saturday. Well, the 26-year-old has only been sin-binned once in his Test career.
After that match, against South Africa in 2018, then-England scrum coach Neal Hatley explained that Itoje had been given licence to “lead the charge” and would not stop.
The ensuing two and a half years have borne that out, although Doyle regards him as “a perfect gentleman”. That manner would seem to help as Itoje takes “calculated gambles in the grey areas”.
“I can tell you that he is constantly thinking because, from the interactions I have had with him, he explains what he is trying to do within the laws,” Doyle adds.
“He knows the law and is thinking about it at the time. It’s not dull or mindless. There’s no thuggery or foul play involved. It’s all within a whisker of being correct.”
Doyle cites the clumsy breakdown penalty conceded by Jonny Hill prior to Hardy’s quick-tap and try, for instance, as the sort of error he has not seen from Itoje “for five or six years”:
One complicating factor at the moment could be that, in the absence of George Kruis, Itoje will have taken on more responsibility with regard to calling lineouts. Then again, he did not appeared stifled by that role in the semi-final of Rugby World Cup 2019.
Without taking into account lineout steals, Itoje has forced 56 turnovers for England since his Test debut, at an average of one every 64 minutes. That makes him England’s most productive defender.
That said, Sam Underhill is next with a turnover every 66 minutes. And the Bath back-rower is far more miserly with penalties, conceding one every 114 minutes to Itoje’s average of one every 55 minutes.
Where can Itoje improve then?
A second charge-down, on Wales replacement Gareth Davies in the 67th minute, showcased Itoje’s nous. There was impressive perseverance at play, too, given he had just conceded his fifth penalty.
Following an England restart and Alun Wyn Jones’ towering catch, Itoje had joined the subsequent maul from the back foot before allowing the melee to spin him around:
Because he had not changed his bind in the maul, Itoje is not offside. He confirmed his legality with assistant referee Andrew Brace...
and blocked Davies’ clearance:
“That’s almost putting the AR under pressure,” Doyle says. “It’s saying: ‘Hey, I’m not doing anything wrong here’.”
You see a great deal of measured interaction, even in the heat of battle, from Alun Wyn Jones himself. Then again, would England want Itoje to harness his instincts?
“Some of [Itoje’s play] is so quick, and so violent, that you don’t get the chance [to double-check things with officials],” Doyle adds. “He’s is very good at ripping the ball.
“It’s something he does an awful lot of because he has very long limbs and is extremely strong – a high-power athlete.”
According to Opta, Doyle penalised Itoje 20 times in Premiership action. Only Ian Tempest, at 2.4 penalties a game, has done so more regularly among all the officials that have refereed Itoje in his professional career. Even so, Doyle believes there is a more pertinent question to ask.
“If you look at it another way, England might think: “How much of this do we want to take away? Because it’s won us so many games.’”