Saracens’ Itoje ‘putting marker down’ says Lions team-mate
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Young lock hailed for performances in New Zealand
Taulupe Faletau believes Saracens’ Maro Itoje has “put a marker down in world rugby” with his performances on the British and Irish Lions’ New Zealand tour.
England lock Itoje was the Lions’ outstanding performer in their Test series-levelling v24-21 ictory over the All Blacks at the weekend, helping to set up an Eden Park decider this weekend.
It proved to be the latest high point in a career that has already reaped two Six Nations titles, a Grand Slam, European Champions Cup and Aviva Premiership success, plus a World Under-20 Championship.
And the former European player of the year’s impact is not lost on Lions number eight Faletau, whose try in Wellington sent the Lions on their way to a first victory over New Zealand since 1993.
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Reflecting on 22-year-old Itoje’s latest masterclass, Faletau said: “You have just got to appreciate it. He has put a marker down in world rugby.
“He was phenomenal, I thought. I am just glad he is on our side.”
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Faletau and company arrive in Auckand on Wednesday after a spell resting and recuperating in the Southern Alps’ tourist haven of Queenstown.
And the focus is already switching to Saturday’s showdown, when the Lions will target a first Test series triumph against New Zealand since 1971, and only the second in their long history.
“The win was great, but it’s only half the job,” added Faletau. “There is a big job we need to get done. There is a big task ahead.
“They are a great team. They are not the world champions for no reason.
“They went down to 14 men (after Sonny Bill Williams was sent off) but were competing until the final whistle. They are just a great side and you’ve got to be on your game, otherwise they will make you pay.
“We responded to the challenge set out by the All Blacks in the first Test. They dominated us in the first game, but the way the boys responded was amazing. To be on the pitch and see it happening was great.
“I am just enjoying the fact that I am here, in the world champions’ country, challenging myself against them.”
The Lions, despite having a one-man advantage for 55 minutes of the second Test following Williams’ red card, were outplayed during the third quarter, but they did not help themselves by conceding several penalties and also seeing Saracens prop Mako Vunipola sin-binned.
Any repeat of such indiscipline could prove decisive, and Faletau added: “On the pitch at the time it definitely was frustrating that we were giving penalties away.
“It was like ‘have a penalty, you missed, have another one, keep trying until you get it’.
“But we are pleased we came out on the right side of the result. It’s something to build on.
“You’ve got to keep a cool head. If everybody kind of loses it, it just escalates and people keep giving those penalties away. I am just glad we managed to regather as a team and get the result we needed.”
And Faletau is now relishing Saturday’s series finale, which will see thousands of Lions fans descend on Auckland.
“The fact that we get to run out to warm up, I feel it is like a home game – it’s incredible,” he added.
“You just can’t replace that. The effort they put in to make the trip down here, it’s incredible. And to see the load of red in the stands and then just chanting ‘Maro Itoje’ is awesome. It is 100 per cent a boost to the guys on the pitch.”