Hakuna matata for Itoje, the Lion King of England's pack

By Mitch Phillips
·3-min read
FILE PHOTO: Autumn Nations Cup - England Training
FILE PHOTO: Autumn Nations Cup - England Training

By Mitch Phillips

LONDON (Reuters) - Not many forwards live by the 'Hakuna matata', or 'No worries', philosophy of Disney's "Lion King" but England's Maro Itoje has that unusual combination of laid-back ferocity that makes him one of the most dangerous players in Test rugby.

Week after week he is consistently lauded for his all-round talent and stellar performances but the athletic lock is forever seeking improvement, while also trying not to get too frustrated when things don't go to plan.

His head-to-head with James Ryan is one of the most eye-catching sub-plots in Saturday's Nations Cup game with Ireland as the two men favoured to fill the British & Irish Lions second row in South Africa next year will try to ruin the other's day.

"On an individual level I think I have been going well but I think there is definitely room for improvement and for me to get better," Itoje said. "I feel as if I am building and the more I play within this team the more I will continue to grow."

Asked where the improvement can come, the 26-year-old, who already has three Lions caps from the 2017 series against New Zealand, replied: “My game is based around physicality and work rate and it is more just having a higher impact in those areas."

That is a frightening thought for England's opponents, given the extraordinary impact he already has in almost every game.

The 26-year-old Itoje combines strength, speed, agility, seemingly telescopic arms and a built-in bloody-mindedness that makes him the sort of player worshipped by team mates and home fans but hated by rivals.

During matches his generally calm demeanour is routinely punctuated by moments of screaming exhilaration, and although not all of the game's "purists" appreciate his outbursts, Itoje says they are misunderstood.


"My celebrations - whenever there’s a small moment or a small victory within the game - it almost has nothing to do with the opposition, they don’t cross my mind," he said.

"My energy is towards my team, to celebrate my team mate doing something special. It's about me or any individual championing a value or a behaviour that we respect as a team."

That is a culture that was also very much at the heart of his club side, but Itoje faces a very different domestic season with Saracens relegated to the Championship, which has yet to get a start date as the Premiership began on Friday.

"It's a little bit weird to be honest," he said of the up in the air situation following his club's punishment for breaching the salary cap. "I was on Twitter the other day looking at all the rugby shirts. I was like ‘where’s Saracens?’ I forgot that we were down. I don’t really know when we’re going to be back."

While that uncertainty could be an issue for many a professional sportsman raised on the hamster wheel of regular action, Itoje is taking it all in his enormous stride.

"I’m at peace," he said. "In the long run everything always tends to work out well. I know with the type of club Saracens is that if the worst-case scenario happened we'd find a way to turn it into a positive thing.

"In the Lion King, Timon (a meerkat) and Pumbaa (a warthog) had a saying - Hakuna matata. It means ‘No worries’.

"I feel with this type of thing, where you have no control over the outcome, you should try as much as possible just to let it figure itself out and not lose any sleep worrying."

(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Toby Davis and Ken Ferris)