Maro Itoje believes England must start delivering ahead of the 2019 World Cup or risk seeing the last three years of Eddie Jones’ work come unstuck in Japan.
The 24-year-old England lock has been dreaming of the tournament since breaking onto the international scene back in 2016, but the Saracen knows now is the perfect time for England to show their mettle ahead of next month’s Six Nations opener against Ireland.
“When I got into the [England] side, everything was centred towards 2019, so we’ve spoken about 2019 for so long,” said Itoje. “Now that it’s actually here it’s like ‘wow’.”
“I think this is a huge year of rugby. I think a lot of dramatic things are going to happen over the course of this year, for both club and country, so that was the thing that stood out for me.
“These types of opportunities don’t come often for an individual and I don’t think on an individual level I would be doing right by myself or right by my teammates and people who’ve invested time and energy in me if I don’t give it my everything in terms of preparations.
“Regardless of what phase of progression we’re in, my mindset is always you have to perform now and win now and obviously that has not always been the case and that has not always happened.
“But that’s always been my mindset and I think leading up to the World Cup and leading up to Tokyo, especially in Tokyo, I think that’s just going to be even more heightened.”
The Saracens forward featured in every autumn international outing as England showed early promise for the Six Nations by clinching victories over South Africa, Japan and Australia and being edged out by the All Blacks.
But after slipping to their worst Six Nations finish since 1987 last year as Jones’ side lost away from home to rivals Scotland and France and then a 2-1 summer series defeat in South Africa, doubts have grown about their away form.
Despite those concerns, Itoje insists England are mentally resilient and psychologically prepared to face pre-tournament favourites and reigning champions Ireland in Dublin.
“If you have a robust state of mind it shouldn’t bother you,” said Itoje, speaking on behalf of Land Rover, at an off road driving event to kick off a huge year of rugby for the automotive brand and its ambassadors.
“I suppose from a travelling team, it’s easier to make up some excuses or give yourself an easy out, so from that point I think it’s purely psychological.
“I thought we had a lot of growth throughout (the autumn). We had four games and each game challenged us in a different aspect.
“I think we showed a lot of togetherness. Sometimes we won pretty, sometimes we won ugly, sometimes we showed an immense amount of character. Sometimes we were challenged in ways we probably didn’t expect to be challenged, but I think we showed growth and I think we showed that we’re a team that’s focused on moving in a positive direction.”
While England’s World Cup campaign doesn’t start until September, Itoje knows England must start building now.
“It’s a great opportunity for us. It truly is. It’s a great way to start, I think it will be a great way to kick off what will be hopefully a very, very successful year for us,” he added.
“Every game counts in the Six Nations. We can go there and beat Ireland, and if we lose to France the next week, it almost doesn’t mean anything, so it’s about consistency.”
Maro Itoje is a Land Rover ambassador. Land Rover has a heritage in rugby, sharing and understanding the values of the sport. @LandRoverRugby