Maro Itoje on the Irish player that impressed him most on the Lions tour
"We're feeling good. Feeling confident. Feeling strong."
So says Maro Itoje as he sits, wrapped up warm, at England's training base at Pennyhill Park.
Having endured a tough run of it in early 2018, England have won four of their last five games heading into the Guinness Six Nations.
Itoje has reason enough to be confident. He is part of a Saracens side that has made the Champions Cup knock-out stages as number one seeds. With the national squad, he is training with the Vunipola brothers, with George Kruis by his side in the second row and with Owen Farrell teamed up with Manu Tuilagi at 10-12.
England's 24-year-old lock acknowledges that Ireland are deserved favourites for the opener at the Aviva Stadium but he senses his country are capable of turning their hosts over. Should they pull it off and beat Ireland in Dublin for the first time since 2013, England would be installed as favourites to win the championship.
Itoje is relishing pitting himself up against many of the Irish players he toured New Zealand with, in 2017, as a British & Irish Lion. The first person he is asked about - in the official Ireland vs. England matchday programme - is a man that outfoxed him at the Aviva Stadium back in March 2017 - Peter O'Mahony.
“Peter is a very good player and very diligent around the lineout,” Itoje comments. “The lineout means a lot to him and he puts in a lot of work there. He is such a passionate player as well, and that is his area of expertise.”
Itoje roomed with injured Ulster lock Iain Henderson in New Zealand and clicked immediately with Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong. On the Leinster tight-head, he said:
“Tadhg was just fantastic on that tour and Johnny Sexton was such an important player.”
Another player that Itoje will doubtless battle with several times, in the coming months and years, is Leinster and Ireland lock James Ryan.
“James has done really well since his debut, a couple of seasons ago," he says. "I always look forward to playing against the top players and this encounter will be no different.”