Lions coach hails Saracens’ humble Itoje
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Maro Itoje has the “humility” and drive not to let his cult status go to his head, according to Graham Rowntree.
England lock Itoje would have been forgiven for lapping up the Westpac Stadium atmosphere on Saturday as the British & Irish Lions edged out New Zealand 24-21 to level the three-Test series at one win apiece.
The thousands of raucous Lions fans created a home atmosphere for the tourists, with their chief anthem becoming the Itoje chant sung to the tune of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army.
The deafening refrain drowned out the All Blacks supporters all night in Wellington, much to the Lions’ delight - but assistant coach Rowntree insisted Itoje knows how to put the adulation into perspective.
“Maro’s biggest quality is humility and how humble he is and how he is continually striving to get better,” said Rowntree.
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“He was calling the lineout on Saturday. He is still a young man.
“It’s a pivotal Test and he is in there calling the lineout on top of everything else he is doing in the game.”
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Itoje was not even born the last time the Lions had pulled off a Test win in New Zealand, back in 1993.
But the 22-year-old has never once shown second thoughts about riding roughshod over reputation and record in a stunning career to date with Saracens, England and now the Lions.
The 12-cap lock’s uncompromising play on Saturday squeezed the All Blacks into submission after New Zealand had claimed the first Test 30-15.
Sonny Bill Williams’ red card tipped the balance in the Lions’ favour in Wellington, with the centre dismissed for a head-high shoulder charge on Anthony Watson.
The Lions still laboured across the line despite the hosts playing almost an hour a man light, halting their momentum by conceding too many penalties.
Now the Lions will take on the All Blacks in Saturday’s series decider in Auckland, where they will again seek to end New Zealand’s stunning unbeaten run at Eden Park.
The All Blacks will be chasing a 40th match without defeat at their Auckland citadel, while the Lions are intent on claiming only their second-ever Test series win in New Zealand.
Itoje described leading the Lions’ lineout for the second Test as just “business as usual”, and Harlequins forwards coach Rowntree was left purring over the second row’s steely focus.
In confirming Itoje as possessing the ideal temperament to cope with fan attention, Rowntree added: “You can’t deny his game impact, his physicality. I thought he brought all that.
“And I like his composure. He is continually striving to get better, asking everyone, “How can I get better?’ He will go a long way.”