Maro Itoje has revealed the World Cup heartbreak which drove him to become one of rugby’s biggest stars.
As a Lion and multi-trophy winner with club and country it is easy to forget that four years ago he was cut by England ahead of the 2015 tournament.
Itoje will always remember being told by Stuart Lancaster that he would play no part in a home World Cup before even having a chance to state his case.
“It was the first time in my rugby career I’d had a disappointment on that scale,” said the Saracens lock, who returns to Eddie Jones’ starting line-up for tomorrow’s sell-out clash in Wales.
“I knew it was going to be tough because I was up against players who had been in the system for years and who the coaches probably felt a bit more confident with at the time.
“I did however think I’d last more than two weeks! It was frustrating, as we didn’t really do any rugby. It was all fitness. It felt the decision had been made before we even got there.”
Itoje, who the year before had captained England to Junior World Cup glory in New Zealand, admits it was a pretty brutal reality check.
“But tough times and good are all part of the journey,” he added. “It made me realise there was a gap I needed to bridge. That I had to find a way to make myself at least on a par if not better than other guys.”
Itoje has done that all right. He went straight back to his club and captained Saracens through pre-season. By the end of the campaign he was a Grand Slam winner.
His rise has been so meteoric that he is now pretty much the first name on the team sheet.
Bath wing Ruaridh McConnochie finally gets to make his debut – five days after getting a World Cup call-up at what, attack coach Scott Wisemantel admits, was a tense selection meeting.
“Everyone in that room knew that when we came out some players would be delighted and others would be devastated,” he said. “It was difficult. But say what you will about the boss (Jones), he understood the gravity of the situation. It weighed very heavily on him.”
Remarkably, England and Wales both have the carrot of becoming rugby’s top ranked nation tomorrow.
Victory for the Welsh would see them leapfrog New Zealand into top spot regardless of the All Blacks’ result against Australia.
And a win by more than 15 points for Jones’ side would send England to number one for the first time since 2004.
Forwards coach Steve Borthwick last night tried to dampen expectation by insisting this extraordinary opportunity had not even been mentioned in their Bristol camp.
Ahead of a showdown which, for the first time since 2015, will take place under the Principality Stadium roof, he declared: “It has not been discussed at all. We are aiming to be at our best at the World Cup.”
Wales: Williams; North, Jo Davies, Parkes, Adams; Biggar, G Davies; Smith, Owens, Francis, Ball, AW Jones (capt), Wainwright, Ja Davies, Moriarty.
Replacements: Dee, Jones, Lewis, Shingler, Navidi, A Davies, Evans, Watkin.
England: Daly; McConnochie, Joseph, Francis, Cokanasiga; Ford (capt), Heinz; Genge, Cowan-Dickie, Cole, Launchbury, Itoje, Lawes, Ludlam, B Vunipola.
Replacements: George, Marler, Sinckler, Kruis, Singleton, Youngs, Farrell, Tuilagi
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