By Neale Harvey
Saracens coach Alex Sanderson has challenged Maro Itoje to get to grips with revised breakdown directives in order to become the dominant force of old.
Itoje, 23, was among a number of England players who fell short of their lofty high standards during a downbeat Six Nations campaign, drawing accusations that Premiership clubs had flogged their Lions stars too hard after last year’s tour of New Zealand.
Forwards coach Sanderson refutes claims that tiredness was to blame, after Itoje starred with a try in Saracens 24-11 victory over Harlequins last weekend, but admits the player’s failure to adapt to law changes has made it hard for the star second row to shine.
Sanderson told The Rugby Paper: “Physically, Maro has not been overworked. We manage his minutes and he’s played ten games over the past 20 weeks, with only four for us, so we know he’s still got it in his legs despite this perceived loss of form.
“You have to look at Maro’s performance in the context of the rest of the England team as well – and if you look at the physicality at the breakdown and his points of difference, he’s not had the license to do what he’s done before because of directives.
“As an attacking player you know you now have to come through the gate from your own side, and as a counter-rucking player you can’t put your foot on the ball, so areas of strength Maro used to win turnovers have been taken away by those directives.
“I think the needle will swing, though, and Maro’s focus around what he needs to be better at in terms of decision-making and discipline is going to put him in a better place in the long run. It’s a teething period at the moment so that’s yet to be seen.”
Saracens’ hefty England contingent must regroup quickly ahead of this weekend’s Champions Cup quarter-final at Leinster, who provided no fewer than 15 of the 23 players who contributed to Ireland’s Grand Slam win at Twickenham last week.
With key players Billy Vunipola, Michael Rhodes and Duncan Taylor rated touch and go for the tie after injury, Sanderson reckons retaining their European title in such demanding circumstances would represent one of the club’s greatest achievements.
He said: “This has been one of the most tumultuous, rollercoaster seasons we’ve had and to get something at the end after what we’ve been through would be a huge cherry on the cake.
“It can be challenging to reintegrate people after international duty and you’d imagine they might be emotionally drained, but our England boys came back positive and they just want to get stuck in now and make things right after a tough Six Nations.
“You saw that post-World Cup when things didn’t go well internationally but they excelled that year, and they all know they’ve a point to prove now because they’re better than they showed. It’s a huge challenge at Leinster but they’ll be ready for it.”
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