Maro Itoje aiming to remain low against Toulon in final preparations for Six Nations
THE LAST club game before joining up with the England squad – even one whose cast list resembles a Test match like Saracens versus Toulon this weekend – is always a tightrope walk.
22:00, Wed, Jan 18, 2017
For Maro Itoje especially so. The phenomenon dubbed the ‘LeBron James of Rugby’ by his Saracens second row partner Jim Hamilton will gladly put his body on the line for his club in Europe but at the same time wants to be in one piece for the Six Nations.
After missing the autumn internationals with a broken hand, he wants no repeat and to the threat of an ill-timed injury has been added the worry over an equally inopportune suspension with the stiffening of the sanctions for high tackles.
The European champions have already had one player sent off and another suspended after being cited since World Rugby’s clampdown was brought in this month.
Keeping low is the key to keeping out of trouble but when you are 6ft 5in tall, approaching the height of American basketball superstar James and connect like a cruise missile that can be easier said than done.
Maro Itoje is wary of his size amid a clamp down on high tackles
“The next couple of months are going to be a bit of an adjusting period,” said Itoje. “For a taller guy, it’s going to be a bit more of an adjustment.
“It’s important that we get it right, because I don’t want to be tackling anybody’s head. We’ll need to adjust for our team because it’s not nice to be playing with 14 men every week.
“The emphasis now will be on making lower tackles to avoid the head. As far as I know, no-one purposely sets out to target the head or neck but it is an occupational hazard. “We’ve always looked at tackle technique but with the new punishments, it’s more important that we get it right. The consequences are more severe now.”
Saracens’ group rivals Sale have even sawn their training tackle bags in half to try to reinforce the message that the target area has to be lower.
Saracens v Toulon will be live on BT Sport 2 on Saturday at 3pm
The changes have been introduced to reduce head injuries. Most concussions occur in the tackle and the RFU’s professional rugby injury report, published yesterday, revealed that while injuries as a whole went down last season, concussion rose by seven per cent. It is now the most common cause of enforced time away from the game. “I understand the theory behind it. It’s all for the protection of the players, to keep us playing in a safe environment,” said Itoje, a BT Sport ambassador.
“The rules are there to protect us. I just hope that they’re used with some common sense.”
So does Eddie Jones, who has Itoje pencilled in to fill the England No 6 jersey in the absence of Chris Robshaw during the Six Nations.
Watching England in the autumn was a frustrating experience for Itoje, an intimidating physical specimen who, up until that point, had also proved remarkably durable.
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“I went to a few of the games. Obviously I wish I could have been out there – I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t the case,” he said.
“But the injury gave me some time to work on other aspects of my game and maybe to work on my conditioning a bit more and I’d like to think I used that time to get a little bit better.
“The last couple of years have gone well but I am still relatively young and I have got more to give. I know I am not the finished article.
“I have my own vision for myself and I know what I want to do and where I want to go. That is what I hold myself to.” In the short term that means helping Saracens complete the double over Toulon this season; soon enough it will entail a leading role in an even bigger Anglo-French encounter at Twickenham. Injury and interdiction allowing.
•••••Watch Saracens v Toulon this Saturday at 3pm, exclusively live on BT Sport 2.
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