Yokohama, Japan, Oct 26 – Towering lock Maro Itoje warned England the job wasn’t done yet after he inspired a stunning Rugby World Cup semi-final victory over New Zealand with a man-of-the-match performance on Saturday.
Itoje, who hounded the All Blacks at the breakdown and led the lineout figures with seven throws won, said England were building “week by week” as they seek their second world title in Yokohama next Saturday.
England will play either Wales or South Africa, who face off on Sunday, in Yokohama next week after their ruthless 19-7 victory over New Zealand, the two-time defending champions.
“It’s not really sinking in at the moment but we’re desperately excited, we’re really honoured to be here but the job isn’t quite done yet,” Itoje said, when asked about the final.
“We still have one more week of hard work and hopefully a big game next week as well.”
Manu Tuilagi’s try put England ahead inside two minutes and New Zealand never recovered, as Itoje and Courtney Lawes led a superb defensive effort to hand the All Blacks their first World Cup defeat in 12 years.
England started slowly in the World Cup with an unflashy pool win over Tonga, but they have steadily improved and handed Australia their heaviest defeat in the competition, 40-16, in last week’s quarter-finals.
“I think we’re just building,” Itoje said. “Game by game, week by week we’re building. We’re pushing in the right direction.
“We haven’t done the job yet but we’re one step closer.”
– ‘PhD in lineouts’ –
Itoje admitted he was living the dream, having taken up rugby in 2006 and been “captivated” by the World Cup in France in 2007.
“These are the moments you play rugby for, the games that you want to be involved in,” said the lock. “You dream of being involved in weeks like this.”
Itoje was quick to praise his props and flankers for lineout help and the background work by assistant coach Steve Borthwick, who was also one of Jones’ right-hand men with Japan at the last World Cup.
“He’s made a career out of lineouts. He a professor in it,” the 24-year-old Itoje, himself a politics graduate from the School of Oriental and African Studies, said of Borthwick.
“If there was a PhD in lineouts he’d be a double PhD.”
New Zealand’s sole try of a riveting encounter came from an overthrow by hooker Jamie George to Itoje, something the lock said you could expect from the All Blacks.
“You don’t win two World Cups for no reason,” Itoje said. “They’re a top team, they’ve set the standard for the last 10 years in world rugby and we had to be at our absolute best to try to challenge them.
“The moment you slip off that they come back and that lineout shows that. It shows you how important the little moments are in matches like this.”
Itoje also praised defence coach John Mitchell, the former New Zealand coach who has lent the England team a steely edge.
“He’s done a great job. He’s very popular among the players. He encourages Owen and Courtney to lead and both those guys set the tone for us defensively,” he said.