When Simon Shaw donned the white of England, he was a towering presence who put fear into opposition defenders with his hugely physical frame, invaluable steals on the floor and nuisance from start to finish of matches.
The former England international established himself as one of the Red Rose’s most reliable and consistent locks over his 16-year international career.
Now, seven years on from retirement, the 46-year-old is highly impressed with vast qualities in current England superstar lock Maro Itoje.
The Saracens man is a hugely influential presence in Eddie Jones’ side and was one of the most impressive players during the recent Rugby World Cup.
“He’s always been in a very good side. He’s always had phenomenal players around him at club and country. He’s a supreme athlete. He’s shown from the get go that he deserves to play at that level,” said Shaw, speaking at DHL Swing against Cancer event in Dubai.
“It’s his athleticism. His ability to get around the park and be as heavily influential whenever he is near the ball. He lost that edge for a season after the Lions tour. That inevitability happens with fatigue setting it.”
It was that Lions form two years ago that turned Itoje into a cult hero and one of the most recongisable faces in the game. But he was unable to re-scale the same heights for over a year after, perhaps down to the mental and physical fatigue that generally curtails some players’ influence after such a draining Tour.
“For a period, he was coming to every ruck and trying to make an impact, and giving away penalties. When you see someone do that, it’s because they are not up to speed. You need that change of mindset here and just to redress and pull back,” said the 2003 World Cup winner.
“You have to go to basics sometimes and not worry too much about having to influence a game. Because people talk about him all the time, he probably feels he needs to be man of the match in every game. Sometimes you need to pull back from that.
“He’s performed superbly at the World Cup. He’s in a camp where he’s constantly getting pushed by others around him. George Kruis, Joe Launchbury, George Kruis. They are all class operators. He has to be at an elevated level.”
At just 25, Itoje has rapidly established himself as the commanding force among England’s forwards. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has charted his development in the game.
Five years ago, he captained England to Junior Rugby World Cup glory in New Zealand, winning the Players’ Player of the Year in the process. What he has achieved in between in nothing short of astonishing, winning four Premierships, three Champions Cups and two Six Nations – one by Grand Slam.
While talk generally turns to Itoje being a potential future England captain, Shaw believes the 34-time capped lock needs to concentrate on his game for now and see what happens in the future.
“Leadership and being a captain, it isn’t something that naturally sits well with everything. Some people find it a daunting task. I don’t think anyone should have it forced on them. Eddie’s done that with the players. He’s swapped with roles of responsibility to see how people cope with them,” said Shaw.
“A lot of people spoke to me about Alun-Wyn Jones and his early captaincy role. He grew into it. You see how players react to the way he speaks and the way he carries himself on the pitch. It didn’t happen overnight.
“All the best captains have had that gentle pressure on the referee and that works really well. I don’t think we need to worry about making him skipper yet.”
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