Maro Itoje has revealed he intends to spend at least a year of his career abroad in a move that would make him unavailable for England – but not before helping to restore Saracens to their former glories.
Itoje has committed to spending next season in the Championship after a proposed lucrative loan move to Racing 92 fell through but his wanderlust has not diminished. The 25-year-old may yet embark on a short-term loan to a Super Rugby side after next year’s Six Nations and before the British & Irish Lions – for which he is in the frame to be captain – but Itoje is eyeing a longer-term spell away from England to broaden his horizons.
“At some stage in my life I would love to play abroad,” said Itoje. “I’ve had a great life and I’m very privileged to play the sport I love and experience the things I have experienced. But experiencing a different culture, a different style, just a different vibe … I’ve more or less lived in north-west London for the majority of my life. It’s a lovely place to live, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in England, at the same time it would be great to experience something else further down the line at some point. I don’t really want to pigeon-hole myself into a specific region but when the time is right I’d love to spend at least a season somewhere.”
Before that, however, Itoje, who agreed a new Saracens deal over the summer, has unfinished business with the club he joined eight years ago. The Champions Cup quarter-final on Saturdayhas been circled in the diary for months, given Saracens’ relegation is confirmed and defeat would mean it proves to be their last European tie for at least two years. Victory, though – against considerable odds given Leinster are undefeated since their defeat by Saracens in the final last season – would be the kind of two-fingered salute for which the club have become known.
“I don’t have a fear of failure but this is obviously a hugely important game,” Itoje said. “We don’t have next season for the Premiership or the European Cup so it’s important to want to do well and succeed, but also enjoy the experience of playing European rugby because nothing is guaranteed. We don’t know what tomorrow is going to hold. It’s massively about relishing the moment. Regardless of what happens at the weekend.
“At Saracens we are used to competing for trophies and being involved until the end of those competitions. Given everything that has gone on in the last 18 months, we obviously can’t compete in the Premiership, so this is where we can compete. It’s knockout rugby; you win or you go home. You win or you’re out of the European Cup for a while. It’s a tournament that we have a lot of respect for and we want to be a part of, so it’s a blessing that we do have this opportunity.”
Itoje is one of eight surviving members of the Saracens lineup from their 20-10 win against Leinster in Newcastle last May and while Mark McCall has been at pains to point out his side is littered with players used to triumphing on European occasions such as these, the matchday squad has a mend-and-make-do look to it. They will miss, for example, Will Skelton’s power in the second row, Liam Williams’s class in the back three, Ben Spencer’s control at scrum-half and of course Owen Farrell’s authority at No 10 – Alex Goode, as expected, fills the void for the suspended fly-half.
In the pros column, Mako Vunipola makes his first appearance since mid-August after a back injury and they have players such as Brad Barritt and Richard Wigglesworth intent on ensuring this is not their last European outing. Their bench, however, looks underpowered but that does not take away from the fact that Saracens have won 15 of their past 17 major knockout matches – their most recent defeat coming nearly two and a half years ago, against Leinster in Dublin.
Leinster line up with 11 of the XV outgunned last season with Johnny Sexton restored at fly-half, having been rested for the Pro14 final victory last weekend. Significantly, however, the tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong has not recovered from a back injury.
“There’s no doubt that Leinster are the form team at the moment,” said Itoje. “They are leading the way but we have a special team here with some special individuals and some big characters who love these types of games and who relish this kind of opportunity. Since the resumption we have been up and down but it feels like the team is coming together at the right time.”