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Rugby News: 'The absolute dream' - Itoje aims for World Cup, 'door open' for Dmac, Caslick hopes next generation will join 'sisterhood'

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25th January, 2024
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After several weeks of one bad story after another, England Rugby has received a much-needed boost with the news that Maro Itoje has set his sights on representing England at the 2027 Rugby World Cup.

With Steve Borthwick set to dig deep in England’s reserves after several key injuries for the Six Nations and the rugby public still rocked by news of Owen Farrell’s departure for France, his Saracens teammate has revealed that while he has received a lot of interest, he wants to remain an option for England for the next four years at a ‘minimum.’

“As a bare minimum I want to do the next World Cup,” Itoje said, speaking to Yahoo! Sport on the first full day of England’s training camp.

“I want to play for the Lions and put myself in a position to be selected.

Maro Itoje of England in action during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Quarter Final match between England and Fiji at Stade Velodrome on October 15, 2023 in Marseille, France. (Photo by Gaspafotos/MB Media/Getty Images)

England’s Maro Itoje runs the ball against Fiji. (Photo by Gaspafotos/MB Media/Getty Images)

“Those opportunities you really can’t take for granted. Being at the last World Cup was an amazing experience. The passion of the fans, the atmosphere, the buzz, the excitement. It’s a drug that is hard to stay away from. I would love the opportunity to do that again.”

His commitment comes at a crossroads moment for England Rugby, as they debate including hybrid contracts for players. Itoje will also be a strong contender for the British & Irish Lions tour in 2025 to Australia.

“I think playing for England is the absolute dream,” he admitted.

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“It was always the goal. And playing at the highest level for England is the greatest opportunity for me to shine, to fully express myself.

“As I sing the national anthem I look around and I think to myself: ‘Wow, this is special, not many people get to experience this in the way that I’m experiencing this.’ So if I was to step away from playing for England now I know a part of me would be eaten up inside.”

In saying this, Itoje also did speak on Farrell’s controversial departure, admitting it would have a big impact on Saracens.

“He’s left an impressive legacy that not many individuals can match”, he added.

“I have worked and played with Owen for my whole career and this is the first camp when he hasn’t been around. He has his own unique style of leadership and he does that very well. I guess it’s inevitable with the change of captain and the changing of the squad that it will just be a little bit different.”

Dmac ‘has the door open’ to inherit keys to the All Blacks

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Damian McKenzie was always going to have a huge 2024. With many All Blacks making the move overseas and a new coach in Razor at the helm, the 28-year-old seems destined for a strong career in the black jersey.

However, his coach at the Chiefs, Clayton McMillan, has issued Dmac a challenge: the door may be open, but he still has to walk through it.

Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs charges forward during the Super Rugby Pacific Final match between Chiefs and Crusaders at FMG Stadium Waikato, on June 24, 2023, in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs charges forward during the Super Rugby Pacific Final match between Chiefs and Crusaders at FMG Stadium Waikato, on June 24, 2023, in Hamilton, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

“The door’s open so he’s got to go kick it down,” McMillan said to 1News.

“As All Blacks we’ve got to set an example in our Super Rugby teams and play like All Blacks.”

The Chiefs will also be leaning more on the flyhalf in a leadership group capacity, having seen the likes of veterans Sam Cane and Brad Weber make the move overseas. For McMillan, Dmac is a vital part of that group, and success is measured in that elusive first title in over a decade, after they fell at the finish line last year to the Crusaders.

“I think it’s really important how we model our leadership group as a collective so people don’t have to take on too much responsibility,” McMillan said.

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“There’s some new voices and we haven’t given much direction, seeing who puts their hand up in the leadership space.”

“You’ve got to embrace it,” McKenzie admitted at the All Blacks camp earlier this month.

Damian McKenzie runs through drills during a New Zealand All Blacks training session at Waitakere Stadium on August 10, 2021 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Damian McKenzie runs through drills during a New Zealand All Blacks training session at Waitakere Stadium on August 10, 2021 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

“There’s opportunity there this year. For me, I’ve always been a person that takes it week by week but you’ve got to take care of your performance, you’ve got to prepare well.

“That’s the position I want to be playing and that’s where I want to be, being able to lead this team. I know there’s a lot of work to be done throughout the year before that first team gets named, so I’m really excited for that opportunity, can’t wait to rip in with the Chiefs and then hopefully this team later in the year.”

Russell clears air with coach and will lead Scotland

Finn Russell believes his appointment as Scotland co-captain is a testament to the new-found harmony between himself and head coach Gregor Townsend following a fractious past.

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The mercurial and hugely gifted 31-year-old has been named as skipper alongside back-rower Rory Darge, ahead of the upcoming Six Nations championship. 

Scotland's Finn Russell celebrates at Full Time during a Guinness Six Nations match between Scotland and England at BT Murrayfield, on February 05, 2022, in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Ross MacDonald/SNS Group via Getty Images)

Finn Russell. (Photo by Ross MacDonald/SNS Group via Getty Images)

Russell being handed such responsibility was particularly notable given he and Townsend have had a strained relationship, with the five-eighth admitting there is no way he would have been considered for skipper duties back in 2020. 

Four years ago, the pair had a well-documented fall-out when Russell left the squad ahead of the Six Nations after being disciplined for failing to turn up for training following a drinking session. 

And then in 2022, Russell’s Scotland career looked in jeopardy once more when, following another unauthorised night out during the Six Nations earlier that year, he was surprisingly omitted from the squad for the autumn Tests. 

Russell and Townsend held clear-the-air talks midway through that series 15 months ago which led to a recall and they have managed to get themselves “on the same page” since then.

The rapprochement culminated in Townsend choosing the Bath No.10 to lead the Scots into the Six Nations after opting to relieve Jamie Ritchie of the captaincy. 

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“I think 2020 would have been the closest to that,” Russell said when asked on Wednesday if he ever thought his Scotland career was over. 

Head coach Gregor Townsend during an Autumn Nations Series match between Scotland and Tonga at BT Murryfield, on October 30, 2021, in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo by Ross MacDonald/SNS Group via Getty Images)

(Photo by Ross MacDonald/SNS Group via Getty Images)

“I was still young enough then that I wouldn’t have said I’d have been done, but with the relationship me and Gregor had, it was potentially tough at the time to see a way back for both of us.

“But I think it shows how well we’ve both dealt with it since then. 

“It shows how we’ve both changed and adapted off the back of that situation. These things happen in high-pressure environments when things are potentially not going as planned. 

“A bust-up happened, that’s kind of all it was, but six months later we were back on good enough terms that I then came back that November. 

“And then in 2022, there was another slight fall-out again I suppose, but then I came back again in November and we were both back on the same page. It’s been great since then, that’s all in the past. It’s not something me and Gregor talk about much.”

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Next generations and titles on the minds of Aussie Sevens

The Perth Sevens is set to kick off tomorrow at HBF Park, with both sides determined to turn form around after disappointing results in 2023.

It was a far cry from the 2018 season, where both the men’s and women’s sides won on home soil. For Charlotte Caslick, there’s hope the women can continue their current run of form and bring home another title.

Charlotte Caslick of Australia runs with the ball during the 2023 Sydney Sevens match between Australia and Fiji. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

“The home tournament is always the benchmark…and it’s good practice with the added pressure in an Olympic year,” Caslick said to rugby.com.au.

“There’s moments with a young group where we haven’t handled (the pressure) that well.

“If we need to make any (tactical) changes we can sort it out this weekend.”

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Caslick also noted that she’s been impressed with the quality of talent coming through, even more so that many cite her as their inspiration for playing rugby. For her, adding to the ‘sisterhood’ remains a key goal for continued success.

“I think Tia Hinds before her first tour said I was the reason she was playing Rugby and then we’re rooming together,” Caslick reflected.

“I guess it’s probably some full circle moments for a few of them and I’m just happy to still keep up with them, still be out there playing and getting to be a part of such a special group.

“It’s pretty special to know that they feel that way about the team and the culture that we’ve been creating since I took over as captain.

“It’s about believing in ourselves and putting everything out there, doing everything you can to protect each other on and off the field.

“It’s grown naturally but we’ve obviously experienced a bit of headache together through Tokyo and then had the opposite in 2022.

“We enjoy each other’s company on and off the field…we’re allowed to celebrate our wins and that’s not just winning on the field, it’s milestones that we go through together such as birthdays, family events and achievements such as Sharni’s wedding last year.

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“I think we’ve really created a family dynamic.”

Nick Malouf

Nick Malouf (Photo by Getty Images)

Nick Malouf is also determined to replicate the success of 2018 for the men’s side, especially so due to a tough run of injuries.

“It’s been about four years since I was lucky enough to play on home soil,” he admitted to Nathan Williamson at rugby.com.au.

“It’s going to be a great atmosphere this weekend. We’re looking forward to a lot of support in the crowd and I’m just excited to get out there.

“For supporters, it’s fantastic because every game is on a knife’s edge. As a player, it’s a little bit stressful but equally as exciting.

“We’re a really quality side and we probably put that on show for three or four games in Cape Town and were lucky enough to get second.

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“We’ve had a great training block since coming into the new year so we can be really confident with our preparation and looking forward to putting it on show this weekend.

Suli set for strong season under Kiss

The bond of playing rugby league could be set to serve Suliasi Vunivalu well in 2024, with the winger admitting he’s enjoying the approach Les Kiss is taking with the Reds.

“I didn’t find out that Les used to play rugby league until a week and a half ago when I had a chat with my manager,” a laughing Vunivalu admitted to news.com.au.

Suli Vunivalu stretches during the Australia Wallabies Captain’s Run at Sydney Cricket Ground on July 15, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

“Then I spoke to him one day after training last week and said to him ‘you came from league as well, what’s with these all these league wingers joining rugby union?’.

“Les wants me to be busy around the park creating options so there’s a space somewhere on the field.

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“I’m doing everything, pretty much like a fullback, roaming at the back.”

Vunivalu did have an improved 2023 under Eddie Jones and Brad Thorn, with the winger admitting openly it was “my best since I moved to rugby.”

Knowing that Kiss was also a former assistant coach under new Wallabies coach Joe Schmidt is also driving the winger to turn his spots of potential into consistent performances, and he hopes to impress the new coach.

“It’s a good boost for myself and I’m really excited about what I can do,” said Vunivalu.

“It’s an exciting bit of it you can’t get too excited if you don’t put in the work. If I do the work, it will all pay off.”

with AAP

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