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The Lions joke Gatland has happily made at expense of Maro Itoje

By Liam Heagney

Trending on RugbyPass

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Warren Gatland has saluted how Maro Itoje has gone from England penalty villain to a Lions saint in the space of a few short months, his immaculate first Test performance last Saturday resulting in him being awarded the man of the match award following the 22-17 series-opening win over the Springboks in Cape Town.     

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Itoje had increasingly encountered Test level penalty problems in recent years with England. Having finished the 2020 Guinness Six Nations as the joint third-worst offender with Wales’ Dillon Lewis on eight penalties conceded, three behind the table-topping Italian duo of Jake Polledri and Giosue Zilocchi on eleven, he finished the 2021 championship as the tournament’s biggest penalty conceding machine.

With England plummeting from champions to a fifth-place finish last March, Itoje was singled out for criticism after his concession of a dozen penalties across his five matches – a total that was three more than the next worst offenders, England teammate Mako Vunipola and Wales’ Wyn Jones on nine penalties each.  

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Eighteen weeks later, though, Itoje didn’t give referee Nic Berry a single opportunity to penalise him in a Lions jersey. With the Lions winning the penalty count 14-8 against the Springboks, it was flanker Tom Curry who was the player most in the official’s crosshairs in conceding three penalties. 

Elliot Daly (two) and Robbie Henshaw, Rory Sutherland and Hamish Watson (one each) were the other Lions to concede penalties, with Itoje’s name nowhere to be seen on the list and this development greatly enthused Gatland ten days after the Itoje had conceded two of the Lions’ twelve penalties in their 17-13 loss to South Africa A. 

“I thought it was an excellent performance,” said Lions boss Gatland. “I made a joke on Monday that it was about the first time in 360-odd games that Maro Itoje hadn’t given away a penalty. I spoke to him and said that maybe the penny has finally dropped because I thought his decision making around the game in terms of when he went for things, when he decided to leave things alone – I kind of found in the past that he has chased lost causes and gone after things that he didn’t need to do and probably wasted a lot of energy.

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“But I thought Saturday his decision making about when to go after something or counter ruck or a breakdown, the lineout stuff I thought was actually outstanding. To me, that was probably the best game I have seen him play in any sort of jersey. We all know the energy he brings to a game and how enthusiastic and sometimes that has probably been to his detriment. He has been guilty in the past of giving away penalties and probably pushing the limits but I thought we saw an incredibly mature performance last weekend.”

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The Lions joke Gatland has happily made at expense of Maro Itoje

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