Itoje ‘worry-free’ ahead of Ireland clash despite no club rugby before Jan 16

Maro Itoje aims to become Lion King by taking inspiration from Disney's film of the same name.

The England star today takes on Irish rival James Ryan with both men high on the bookies’ shortlist to captain the Lions against the world champion Springboks next summer.

Itoje’s path to South Africa is complicated by the fact he has no top level club rugby this season – and no idea when he will even play for relegated Saracens.

He admits to shocking himself when looking at this weekend's opening round of Premiership fixtures and being unable to find his club.


“I was like ‘where’s Saracens?’.. I forgot that we were down!” he said. “I don’t really know when we’re going to be back playing.”

The Rugby Football Union has in fact pencilled in a start date of January 16 for the second-tier Championship.

That means for the next two months Itoje must rely on England to keep himself in the shopwindow, starting this afternoon at Twickenham. But he insists he won't panic.

“I’m at peace,” he said. “I don’t know if you ever watched Lion King but Timon and Pumbaa had a saying called Hakuna Matata . It means ‘no worries’.

“I feel with this type of thing, where you have no control over the outcome and no control over the planning process, you should try as much as possible just to let it figure itself out and not lose any sleep worrying or being anxious about X, Y or Z.”

Armed with that attitude, the 26-year-old will throw himself at Ireland intent on keeping England on track for a place in next month’s Nations Cup final.

“My goal is to be the best player I can be, to continually improve and push the boundaries of what I can do and where I can go,” he said.

“We know that the intensity is about to ramp up but my game is based around physicality and work rate and I think there is definitely room for me to get better.”

Itoje’s approach is mirrored by club mate Billy Vunipola, who said: “We want Ireland to know that we’re not taking this as just another game.

“We know they’re going to come out firing, (Ireland coach) Andy Farrell knows when to pump the boys' tyres up and when to challenge them.

“They’ve picked a big pack. They want to see if they can negate the advantages from our scrum and mauls and breakdown. It’s a nice challenge for us and one that excites a lot of the boys up front.

“You might not see it or hear it but the way the boys are carrying themselves you can see there's a quiet confidence about us, as well as a bit of nervous energy which is never a bad thing.”

England have adopted a ‘bring it on’ mindset as much as anything to fire themselves up after two low-key outings against Italy and Georgia.

“Ultimately the team that's most cohesive, gets in first and wins the big moments, gives themselves the best opportunity,” said defence coach John Mitchell.

"We're looking forward to whatever they chuck at us. We're ready."

ENGLAND: Daly; Joseph, Lawrence, Slade, May; Farrell (capt), Youngs; M Vunipola, George, Sinckler; Itoje, Launchbury; Curry, Underhill, B Vunipola.

Replacements: Dunn, Genge, Stuart, Hill, Earl, Robson, Ford, Malins.

IRELAND: Keenan; Earls, Farrell, Aki, Lowe; R Byrne, Gibson-Park; Healy, Kelleher, Porter; Roux, Ryan (capt); Stander, O'Mahony, Doris.

Replacements: Herring, E Byrne, Bealham, Henderson, Connors, Murray, B Burns, Stockdale.

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