With eleven minutes left in the first half of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, England won possession at South Africa’s 22-metre line.
The score was remarkably 3-6, despite the Springboks having starved their opponents for the ball.
For the next three minutes, the English forwards kept ball in hand, forming 26 consecutive rucks, winning two penalty advantages, stayed inside the Bok 22, went forward and went backward, but at one point came within one inch of scoring a pivotal try.
If England were to have won the final, and the good medals worth accepting, they had to score. They did not.
If they had scored, and gone up 10-6 with less than seven minutes left, and controlled the restart, we might be analysing how England won its second Cup, and it would have been Jonny May in his budgie smugglers befriending Prince Harry and a beer-filled trophy.
During those vital 180 seconds, with English fans on their feet, the Bok forwards scrambling, Faf de Klerk flying over bodies, and mismatches galore (Cheslin Kolbe one-on-one with Courtney Lawes twice, in space), the much-vaunted super-athlete and ferocious competitor Maro Itoje almost disappeared.
Where did he go? Why did he shrink?
Itoje did not carry
England carried 30 times in those three minutes. It was no picnic. The pathway was into the teeth of the biggest Boks.
Thus, we only saw four backline carries. There was no space and time for passes, for the most part. It was halfback to forward with a head start; or pick-and-go from the base. This is when a mobile lock proves his salt.
But here’s the thing. The only English forward to carry less than Itoje in the Three Minute Assault was Jamie George.
Billy Vunipola carried seven times; his brother trucked it up three times in very heavy traffic.
Both had the same ratio of strong carry-to-being-dominated (Billy was 3:3; Mako was 1:1).
Lawes carried five times with less success: one good carry; but dominated three times. Sam Underhill was the best carrier with three strong carries out of three.
Overall, I rated 13 of the 30 English carries as ‘strong’ (over the gainline and resulting in quick ball), with 11 as ‘dominated’ by the Boks (turned or smashed or easily slowed); six carries were just neutral.
Itoje missed his opportunity to turn momentum as a big carrier during this period. He only put his hands on the ball twice (he was not even involved as jumper or lifter or a jazz hand clapper in the lineout which started the phases): at 29:39 he picked up 13m out, and was immediately squashed by Pieter-Steph du Toit, who turned him back on to the previous ruck.
The next phase started two metres behind Itoje’s attempt.
The second time Itoje carried was at 31:42, twenty-two rucks into the attack.
He was fourth to the ruck after a strong Billy Vunipola carry almost to the try line.
He picked up static ball from within the ruck, and tried to muscle it over, but was absolutely stymied by Frans Malherbe, who is more of a bear-wrestler than a dynamic tackler.
Itoje did not find his inner Ardie. His legs did not pump. He did not chirp.
Itoje abdicated. He deferred. He handed it to poor old Dan Cole to try for glory. If you add an ‘e’ to Dan’s first name and an ‘s’ to his surname, it might have worked, but the bald prop had no juice in his legs, after being pumped by Beast Mtwarira in the scrums, and all he did was resemble a bald pancake with PTSD. One metre to go but no glory.
The English were pushed back to the 22 after a few more phases.
Itoje did not feature as a carrier thereafter. in the Big Three Minutes. He did not even offer himself as a carrier. If he got off the deck, and wandered into the backfield, he put himself flatfooted in a poor position, and watched.
Most of the time he joined rucks as a third or fourth arrival, and merely lay down or rested a hand on a Bok or Pom after collisions.
Itoje did not meet the moment. In that situation, inches from the line, with the only try of the match yet to be scored, and the half ready to be stolen, against the run of play, Itoje failed to be a leader, and he cannot claim to be in the same category as Brodie Retallick, Alun Wyn Jones, Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager, and Sam Whitelock.
Itoje was ineffective
I looked at all of Itoje’s actions at the 15 rucks he joined. I classified them as strong or passive.
The final tally was 0-15.
In addition, four times he did something that some referees would have whistled. I am not saying he shouldn’t have done those things.
Jerome Garces was letting attacking sealers belly flop two or three metres beyond the tackled carrier. I am just saying that he put his team at risk of being turned over deep in the attacking zone.
Itoje no-showed at 10 of the rucks in which he was not the carrier (he picked and went twice and was smashed back).
He did not clean one Bok. He flopped on Vermeulen once instead of cleaning him. He tried to clean Malherbe but failed miserably; Owen Farrell had more success.
He latched twice, but ended up just falling down. He watched several rucks from a standing, contemplative position. Three times he failed to move from a prior ruck.
From Ruck 1 to Ruck 11, he never ran hard. He stayed on one knee from Ruck 11 to Ruck 13. He walked to Ruck 14. He was the sixth to arrive.
He trotted to Ruck 15 and took no part. He rested on Cole’s back at Ruck 16. He watched Farrell try to clean Malcolm Marx at Ruck 17.
He was beaten at Ruck 18 to the good carrier position by Mako Vunipola, even though Mako started from farther away.
At Ruck 19, he unnecessarily sealed despite no Bok contest. At Rucks 22 and 23, he was a statue on the side.
Crucially, at Ruck 24, he only ran ten metres, while Lawes ran 20 metres to be a carrier and try to rescue the chance to score a try.
Underhill ran a good 30 metres to be a part. Itoje never went from side to side, but Etzebeth went from sideline to sideline and tackled Tuilagi on a mini-break.
In the end, Farrell took the three after Faf de Klerk forced Garces to blow it up.
When Itoje declined to let Sir Bill Beaumont hang the medal around his head, perhaps he was dismayed at his own lack of fire in those three minutes.
He was a quiet lad in the final. But he was quietest when his team needed him to make a noise the most.