Warren Gatland was one of the few spectators at the Principality Stadium on Saturday for Wales’ Guinness Six Nations win over England, but even he may not have expected to learn so much from the contest.
The match not only had a sweep of potential starters for the British and Irish Lions on display, but was effectively an audition for Gatland’s leading captaincy candidates too.
One of those was Maro Itoje, who exhibited the full spectrum of what he brings to any match. The Saracens lock showed his best; inexorable in putting scrum-half Kieran Hardy under immense pressure and contributing with dominant hits.
But a penalty count of five, and a tournament total of ten, is less flattering.
Heading into this year’s Championship, the question may have been who was going to partner the Saracen in the engine room against South Africa. But a combination of his own form and the form of his competitors has now thrown the debate wide open.
Eddie Jones has been swift to defend his star man, saying referees tend to “over-referee” him. When looking back, three of his penalties could well have been overlooked on another day.
The deliberate knock-on, playing the ball on the floor and an offside call were all as marginal as decisions go, but Itoje has a reputation of playing the game on the edge and that may be at the back of referees’ minds. Jones knows that, and so will Gatland.
The worst thing for the 26-year-old is that this is not an ideal time to encounter these problems, particularly in his position. While it is almost a certainty that he will make the Lions squad, there is so much depth in the second-row department that players can ill-afford to underperform.
Of the five locks that were originally selected in 2017, only George Kruis is no longer in contention to travel this year. With James Ryan all but guaranteed to be selected, or even start against the Springboks, and Tadhg Beirne and Jonny Gray making a great account of themselves this year, the second-row contest is reaching fever pitch.
With Saracens playing a season in the IPA Greene King Championship, Itoje does not even have domestic and European competitions after the Six Nations to show he has ironed out his problems. If his current ill-discipline is a product of a lack of playing time so far in 2021, that issue will not be alleviated after the Six Nations and ahead of the summer.
Saturday may have been conclusive for some in determining the Lions captain, with Alun Wyn Jones getting the better of Itoje and Farrell. That seems to be the case for former Wales No8 Andy Powell. By virtue of that, there is only one other second-row vacancy to fill for the first Test against the Springboks, although Itoje remains an option at No6 as well.
Alun wyn Jones captain for the lions end of no comments back please about itoje being captain we would lose a game by half time
— Andy Powell (@andypowell8) February 28, 2021
The Wales captain has by no means been squeaky clean this Championship and has a penalty count of six, with four of those coming against Scotland. But the timing of penalties is sometimes more significant than the quantity, and Itoje’s four in the opening half-hour may have been excused had he not jumped across the lineout in the final quarter to gift Wales the lead again when the scores were 24-24. What’s more, as the most experienced player in Test history and having worked with Gatland for over a decade, the Welshman has less to prove.
Itoje still remains one of the best and most influential players on the planet though, but his oppressive style comes at a price at the moment. Penalties may always be an inevitability due to the way he plays, but he has two more matches this Six Nations to convince Gatland that it is a price worth paying.
I suspect Itoje lost the Lions Captaincy yesterday afternoon.
— Old Sulians (@Oldsuliansrfc) February 28, 2021
Lions captaincy is intriguing. Jones, Farrell and Sexton not guaranteed starters. Itoje inability to control discipline rules him out which puts Hogg leading contender… except Gatland likes a forward as skipper!
— Martin Cross (@MartinXRugby) February 28, 2021
If people rate Itoje before AWJ, have a word with yourself… Itoje gives a team 9-12 points a game when things are against him…
— Rob Richards (@robrich10) February 27, 2021
Itoje for the lions? Handre Pollard will be dreaming about all the 3 pointers he’s going to be slotting thanks to him ?
— Lewis Harris (@lewish773) February 27, 2021
Itoje tipped to captain the Lions, be lucky to make the squad after that performance. Is there anything better than seeing Farrell seething during interviews ? Uppa Cymru ???????
— Daniel Crocker (@crock_daniel) February 27, 2021
Fancied Itoje to captain the lions but after conceding half dozen penalties personally he would bring unwanted pressure just like he did today. Uppa Wales
— Daniel Haile (@Daniel_Haile12) February 27, 2021
Itoje is a penalty machine. Wouldn't have him anywhere near Lions captaincy.
— Matthew Lloyd ? (@statto10) February 27, 2021
Don't get me wrong, I think Itoje is an immense player, covers every blade of grass on the pitch. But for me, he concedes way too many penalties to be considered Lions captain ?
— Emma Hart ??????? (@emmamh_92) February 27, 2021
Itoje has been giving away a bucket load of pens all season. Has to cut them if Lions go ahead & he’s capt.
— Andy Howell (@andyhowellsport) February 27, 2021
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