Auckland - Lock Maro Itoje has transformed in New Zealand
from the baby of the British and Irish Lions camp into a cult hero who fans
believe can inspire a historic Test series win over the All Blacks.
The second rower goes into the series decider in Auckland
with his ears still ringing from the chants of travelling supporters bellowing
his name as they urged the Lions to a famous 24-21 victory in Wellington.
After a cameo off the bench in the first Test, Itoje seized
his chance to start in the second, notching a game-high 15 tackles to help
overcome the world champions.
He also relished the added responsibility of calling the
line-out and produced a livewire performance that sparked both his team-mates
and the Lions supporters.
"He was immense from start to finish and the feeling of
invincibility a young tyro like the England lock brings to proceedings should
not be under-estimated," former Lions coach Clive Woodward declared after
"It wouldn't occur to him for a second that New Zealand
were unbeatable. He doesn't really understand the concept of defeat, long may
Perhaps more telling than praise from northern hemisphere
pundits was criticism in New Zealand media about Itoje's "cynical"
repeated offside infringements as the match hung in the balance.
Itoje conceded two penalties but cost the All Blacks
try-scoring opportunities, said local commentators, who have long championed
the notion that rugby's best players operate on the edge of the law.
Itoje, 22, was not even born the last time the Lions scored
a Test victory over the All Blacks in 1993. His father Efe was only three when
the tourists won their one and only Test series in 1971.
As the youngest player in the tour group, Itoje was given
the task of looking after its mascot, a cuddly toy lion named BIL, which he
dutifully carried around when they were formally welcomed to New Zealand in
Yet the rising star was hardly unknown before the Lions
He helped Saracens to last year's European Champions Cup and
formed part of the England team that this year equalled the All Blacks' record
of 18 straight Test wins.
The Irish Times in its pre-tour rundown described Itoje as
"the youngest but most important Lion".
"There is a growing suspicion this freak athlete is
actually a cyborg assassin sent back from 2029 to alter the All Black monopoly
of rugby union," it enthused.
Now that Itoje has shown what he can do, the hype has
reached even greater heights.
But the 1.95 metre, 117 kilogram lock is keeping his feet
firmly on the ground.
He acknowledged the chants of "Oh, Maro Itoje"
belted out to the tune of the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army",
which drowned out the home support in Wellington.
Even his fellow lock Alun Wyn Jones was joining in the
chorus as they left the field, though Itoje said his thoughts were already
turning to the next Test.
"I did hear them," he said. "Obviously it's
nice but I was fully concentrated on the game at the time so I can only really
enjoy it now.
"I'm very honoured to be a part of this team. We've
achieved something pretty good. But it's only half-time. It's 1-1."
Lions prop Jamie George said his England and Saracens
team-mate, who is studying for a degree in African politics, was uncomfortable
with the rock-star treatment.
"I actually don't think he does like it if I'm
honest," George revealed.
Assistant coach Graham Rowntree was confident Itoje would
again give his all in Saturday's winner-takes-all showdown and enjoy a stellar
"He's continually striving to get better, asking
everyone, 'How can I get better?' He'll go a long way," Rowntree said.