‘Leaving England would eat me up inside’

GIRONA — The gleaming pearl earring dangling from Maro Itoje’s left ear is a gift from his parents and also symbolic of the mighty second row’s mood.

A day into England’s warm-weather training camp in Spain, the sun is shining, all results in the forthcoming Six Nations are possible, and Itoje’s mind, body and heart appear in harmony. The dreadlocks of recent years have been shorn into a close-cut look, as a throwback to his youth.

The 29-year-old has prepared for a future in business by recently completing an online MBA. But Itoje is far from done with rugby, and his core message will delight any England supporters feeling perturbed by Owen Farrell and others turning away from the Test arena, and hightailing it to clubs in France.

“I want to, at a bare minimum, do the next World Cup,” says Itoje. “I want to play for the Lions [next year], put myself in position to be selected there. Those opportunities are ones you really can’t take for granted.

“Being at this last World Cup was an amazing experience. The passion of the fans, that atmosphere, the buzz, excitement – it’s a drug that it’s hard to stay away from, so I would love the opportunity to do that again.”

As the old summer singalong song used to go, England have taken the Costa Brava plane, and at the start of their second year under head coach Steve Borthwick they landed on Tuesday at a “golf and wellbeing” resort 30 minutes’ drive from a millpond-ish Mediterranean.

The golfing element would have been right up Owen Farrell’s fairway, but the former captain who led the team to third place at the World Cup in October is voluntarily no longer involved, with a deal to join Racing 92 next season settled, according to the Parisian club.

With a captain of a previous era, Will Carling, recently querying whether playing for England is still the pinnacle, Itoje’s words are a heavyweight counter-balance, as he describes pulling on the white jersey as the “absolute dream”, “truly an honour” and a “blessing”.

The fire was lit when, uninitiated in rugby, he watched the 2007 Six Nations at school in Hertfordshire, and dashed outside to scamper down the wing and take pretend drop-goals.

“Playing at the highest level for England…it’s the greatest opportunity for me to shine,” Itoje says. “To fully express myself and express my competitive juices. As I sing the national anthem, I look around and I think to myself ‘wow, this is special, not many people get to experience this in the way that I’m experiencing this’.

PARIS, FRANCE - OCTOBER 21: Manu Tuilagi, Maro Itoje and Jamie George of England sing their national anthem prior to the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between England and South Africa at Stade de France on October 21, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Julian Finney - World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)
Manu Tuilagi, Maro Itoje and Jamie George belt out the national anthem at the World Cup (Photo: Getty)  

“If I was to step away from playing English rugby, playing for England now, I know a part of me would be eaten up inside.”

There is no implied criticism of Farrell; just a re-statement of Itoje’s goals. Accordingly, a contract extension at Saracens is expected to be announced soon, accompanied by one of the new top-up deals – or “enhanced EPS” – with England, for up to three years.

His club are going through a rebuilding phase, but that’s fine. Itoje also took into account his London home and his family. The MBA was a three-year course online with Warwick University. “I’m very interested in business, in the dynamics of it and I see my life post rugby in that world. In addition, there’s a whole number of… investment opportunities or business opportunities that come to me now. I want to be… making informed decisions.”

Here in Spain, England are borrowing the training ground of Girona FC, obliging the surprise leaders of La Liga to temporarily relocate their practice, although on Wednesday they were busy anyway on Copa del Rey duty in Mallorca, seeking a first ever semi-final in that near-century-old competition.

England are mixing the old and new, with Jamie George succeeding Farrell as captain, and an Irishman in Felix Jones on board as defence coach, and a New Zealander, Andrew Strawbridge, taking an expert look at the contact area.

A hip injury to Ollie Lawrence has ruled the in-form centre out of the Six Nations opener in Italy on Saturday week, and possibly longer; a medical issue has put the returning hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie out of that match too.

“I have worked and played with Owen for my whole career and this is the first camp when he hasn’t been around,” says Itoje. “Owen is a big rugby nut so he will be watching everything I’m sure and sending us his best wishes. We have a couple of new coaches in, a couple of new members of staff behind the scenes.

“There is a changeover of players, some who have moved on and some who are coming in. I want to help Jamie and Steve create an environment where people love being and everyone enjoys being here, but we also get stuck into the rugby.

“We know the last couple of Six Nations have not really been what we wanted them to be. The whole thing is to push the team forward and I definitely want to play a role in that.”

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