Maro Itoje may have been tipped by many to be the Lions’ ‘King’ in South Africa next year, but it is the animated children’s film ‘The Lion King’ that is providing the England star with unusual inspiration at a time of uncertainty in his club career.
Itoje, who will line-up in England’s second row when they face Ireland in the Autumn Nations Cup at Twickenham on Saturday, remains with Saracens following the five-times Premiership champions’ relegation from the English top flight at the end of last season for breaches of the salary cap.
While the new 2020/21 Premiership season starts on Friday, the second-tier Championship remains on hold amid the coronavirus pandemic and may not get going until the new year, if it starts at all.
But Itoje is trying not to let the doubts over London club Saracens’ schedule prey on his mind.
“I don’t know if you ever watched ‘The Lion King’, but Timon and Pumbaa (two of the animal characters) had a saying called “Hakuna-matata”, Itoje told reporters. “It means ‘no worries’.
“I feel with this type of thing, where you have no control over the outcome, you have no control over the planning process, you should try as much as possible just to let it figure itself out and not lose any sleep worrying or being anxious about X, Y or Z,” the 26-year-old added.
“I’m at peace. In the long run everything always tends to work out well. I know with the type of club Saracens is, that if the worst-case scenario happened we’ll find a way to make it work.”
But he admitted it felt strange not knowing when Saracens, the 2019 Premiership and European double-winners, would next play a domestic league game.
“It’s a little bit weird to be honest!,” he said. “I was on Twitter the other day looking at all the rugby shirts. I was like ‘where’s Saracens?’ I forgot that we were down (relegated)!
“I don’t really know when we’re going to be back. I know the boys are training and they’ve got a presumptive date in January but you keep on hearing different things. I’m not too sure there’s been a definitive answer.”
There are those who argue a greatly reduced club programme could benefit Saracens stars such as Itoje and England captain Owen Farrell by ensuring they are fresh, yet match fit through Red Rose duty, for the British and Irish Lions’ three-Test series away to world champions South Africa in June and July.
The dynamic Itoje, a veteran of 43 Tests (40 for England and three for the Lions during their drawn 2017 series in New Zealand), has been tipped to lead the combined side.
His apparent habit of ‘getting in the face’ of opponents when his team are awarded a penalty has, however, annoyed traditionalists.
But Itoje, a member of the England side beaten by South Africa in last year’s World Cup final, said his conduct had been misunderstood.
“My celebrations, or whenever there’s a small moment or a small victory within the game, it almost has nothing to do with the opposition,” he explained.
“The opposition don’t cross my mind…My energy is towards my team, it’s to celebrate my team-mates doing something special.”