England’s best player is also their worst offender and the curious case of Maro Itoje encapsulates what went wrong against Wales – as Eddie Jones’ side were emphatically out-smarted.
Itoje would be included in any World XV. He is a magnificent forward and a phenomenal athlete at the heart of the England pack, but his glaring flaw is that he keeps giving away penalties in the relentless attempt to dominate every facet of every game he plays.
It is a fact which is undermining England, when Itoje has all the attributes to be a prodigious asset.
The curious case of England forward Maro Itoje encapsulates what went wrong against Wales
England’s best player was also their worst offender as his penalty count of five caused issues
His considerable intelligence is not being reflected in on-field nous. In Cardiff, Itoje once again kept being penalised by the referee for technical infringements. It is a long-established pattern which needs to be stopped.
In his determination to play on the edge, he is straying over it all too often. Marginal calls are going against him.
The time has come for Itoje to prove he can pull back from the brink and stay out of trouble. It would aid his country’s ambitions and his personal ones.
He has spoken about the possibility of being named Lions captain this year but that scenario may be fading.
Warren Gatland was at the Principality Stadium on Saturday and it would be fascinating to know what he made of the contrast between Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones, who proved once again that he remains the Welsh ringmaster; utterly imperious and influential.
Itoje once again kept being penalised by the referee for technical infringements in Cardiff
The home captain demonstrated the sort of shrewd, calm, diplomatic leadership that the Lions would need in a tight Test series.
Eddie Jones spoke up in support of Itoje, but the England head coach recognises the need for some rough edges to be smoothed. ‘He is one of the best players in the world and he plays the game on the edge,’ said Jones.
‘I can remember the same sort of discussion being had about George Smith (ex-Australia flanker) at one stage. Sometimes the referees tend to over-referee a player like him. At the same time, there are areas of the game he needs to tidy up and he knows that. He’s a good boy and a good player.’
It would be harsh to cast Itoje as an English scapegoat. He was virtually alone in offering meaningful resistance against Scotland at Twickenham in the opening round.
That day, he exerted pressure on Scotland scrum-half Ali Price and on Saturday he was similarly disruptive in harassing rookie Kieran Hardy, only for the rookie Welsh No 9 to have the last laugh with his quick-tap try in the second half.
But Itoje symbolises England’s tendency to put too much emphasis on furious intensity at the expense of composure. Of course, aggression and physical commitment are staples of Test rugby, but they must be complemented by clear thinking.
Itoje symbolises England’s tendency to put too much emphasis on furious intensity
In an empty arena, England were typically loud and assertive. The soundtrack of the match was captain Owen Farrell urging his team-mates to inflict defensive punishment – ‘get him, get him’ or ‘smash, smash, smash’.
No doubt his words serve to fire up those around him, but there is no sense of mellower messages being shared too.
There has been much talk in the England camp of rediscovering their identity and their DNA. This appears to be interpreted as tantamount to a declaration of war on all-comers.
What they seem to want to stand for is constant, extreme physicality, but they are capable of far more than that.
The abiding images from this ultimately emphatic Welsh win were of Dan Biggar having a friendly chat with referee Pascal Gauzere then, seconds later, Farrell involved in a furious dispute with the Frenchman.
The England skipper undoubtedly had a point, but somehow he and his team invariably set themselves up as pantomime villains, which canny rivals exploit by staying polite and obedient.
But rugby needs to avoid the sort of farcical sequence which preceded Josh Adams’ try as it holds the sport up to ridicule in front of a mass audience, though the truth is that England ruined their own good work after being left seething and trailing 17-6.
It would be harsh to cast Itoje as an English scapegoat following the 40-24 defeat to Wales
When Ben Youngs touched down in the 62nd minute and the scores were levelled, England were set fair to go on and win. They were playing well – as well in attack as they have for quite some time.
There was a renewed fluency. The real Billy Vunipola was sighted again, as the giant No 8 ran hard and straight, to earn two first-half penalties in quick succession as a signal of his personal impact.
Farrell played well in midfield and the up-shot was that Henry Slade started looking like the graceful runner that he tends to be for Exeter. Elliot Daly was still not fully convincing, but there was a discernible improvement.
So, the attack functioned well in bursts and the defence was typically brutal, but the noisy onslaught seems to drown out English efforts to maintain composure and clarity, whereas Wales had those qualities in abundance.
Hardy was a target but came up trumps. The same applied to Callum Sheedy. The young half-backs kept their heads whereas England did not.
The victory margin was not a fair reflection of another close encounter. Wales are now striving for a Grand Slam and England could end up with four defeats out of five, which suggests there is a gulf that doesn’t actually exist.
But the difference is summed up by Itoje and how he compares with Alun Wyn Jones. England talent and brawn was trumped by Welsh brains – not for the first time.