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Dublin: 5°C Thursday 25 February 2021

'You can't ignore the threat' - Maro Itoje in fine form for Leinster showdown

The England second row will be a key man as Sarries look to cause an upset in Dublin.

WHEN RUGBY WAS put on hold back in March, Maro Itoje had been in some of the best form of his career.

Building on a superb 2019 World Cup with England, the 25-year-old shone for Saracens and was a dominant figure in the 2020 Six Nations before it was cut short by Covid-19.

It must have been frustrating for Itoje to pause things when he was stringing together such impactful performances but it doesn’t look like lockdown has slowed the towering lock down very much.

will-skelton-and-maro-itoje-with-jonathan-sexton Maro Itoje carries into Johnny Sexton's tackle last year. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The Saracens second row has been excellent in his four starts for the club since the 2019/20 Premiership season restarted, picking up where he left off with intelligent, influential, and destructive performances.

While Saracens’ form has been up-and-down like the rest of the English clubs as they rotate to manage midweek games, Itoje has been impressive and he will be pivotal if the defending European champions are to cause an upset in Dublin this weekend.

Their Champions Cup quarter-final clash with Leinster promises to be riveting, all the more so because Saracens are the last team to have beaten the Irish province – all the way back in last season’s European decider in Newcastle in May 2019.

While Mark McCall’s men have lost a host of good players since that tie and are now without the suspended Owen Farrell, they still have plenty of strengths – chief destroyer Itoje among them.

“He’s very good, isn’t he?” says Leinster assistant coach Robin McBryde. “He’s very disruptive and that’s an area of the game he prides himself on with regards to getting into the minds of the opposition and being that nuisance.

“You are going to have to be at your best, aren’t you? He certainly keeps you on your guard.

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“You can’t ignore the threat that he poses in everything that he does. He is just relentless in his ability to spoil any quality possession from the lineout, he is coming through the back of mauls and putting pressure on scrum-halves.

“At the breakdown, he’s pulling and tugging. Again, he’s one of those players you can’t ignore.

“You’ve got to make players aware, but even that is sometimes not enough because he’s so good at what he does. He’s one of their big players and definitely someone we have to keep as quiet as we can.”

johnny-sexton-dejected-after-the-game Leinster were left dejected against Saracens last season. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

McBryde underlined again that Leinster must improve their lineout performance after several failings there in last weekend’s Guinness Pro14 final win over Ulster, with Itoje only too keen to take advantage of anything similar on Saturday.

The England international was excellent when Saracens beat Leinster in last season’s final, with Itoje starting at blindside flanker and completing 26 tackles in a huge defensive display at St James’ Park.

Itoje will almost certainly be in the second row for Saracens this time around, but the pain of that final defeat still lingers for Leinster.

“It’s a warning and a motivation,” says McBryde, who wasn’t with Leinster last season. “You want to right the wrongs of the past but it’s also a warning that you’re up against a quality team, a team that’s used to winning away from home, a team that’s used to winning big championships, with big-game players who are vastly-experienced and are very well-coached.

“If anything, it’s putting us on our guard a little bit more. We know that last Saturday [against Ulser] we didn’t get certain areas right, the lineout in particular, so we’re going to have to improve on that performance. It’s a step up.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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