YOKOHAMA, 26 Oct - Maro Itoje is an erudite rugby player, not prone to hyperbole, which makes his prediction that England are about to “get” New Zealand in Yokohama and reach the final of the Rugby World Cup so unusual.
A softly-spoken university graduate, Itoje is able to see the bigger picture on and off the pitch. And, armed with his experience of the tied British and Irish Lions tour in 2017, he has absolute belief in England’s chances of ending a six-game losing streak against the All Blacks when they meet at International Stadium Yokohama on Saturday.
“As Ric Flair (professional wrestler) said, 'To be the man you’ve got to beat the man’," said Itoje, whose phenomenal predatory skills make him top of the RWC 2019 stats for turnovers, on seven.
"I learned a lot about New Zealand, their culture, how they play the game, how good and clinical they are and how to get them. I have never ever gone into a game thinking that team is going to beat me.
"The way I see New Zealand, I respect what they have done but I don’t see them as a team that is going to beat us on Saturday. They are a very good team and they have the capacity to do some very dangerous things, but I still believe that if we play our best rugby, we will win.
“This weekend feels like the time we're going to get them. I’ve approached this week by just focusing on winning, on getting the process right to get the team in a position to win. We have a strong amount of belief in this squad.
"If you speak to most people and if you really dig into their psyche I think you will find a strong belief that we are capable of beating these guys.”
Those words will be music to the ears of England fans who have not seen their team reach a World Cup final since the defeat by South Africa in 2007 – four years after Jonny Wilkinson kicked the team to triumph in Australia.
An embarrassing failure to get out of their pool in 2015 led to the arrival of head coach Eddie Jones, who announced he wanted to take England to the top of the world rankings. That can be achieved by defeating New Zealand.
Itoje, pictured top after the quarter-final victory against Australia and above in action in that game, has always believed his country should be pushing for all the available honours.
“I remember watching the 2007 Rugby World Cup – that was probably the first World Cup where rugby really captured my imagination. I've always seen England as a team that should be there competing and winning World Cups.
"As a young rugby player you watch all these tournaments and think, 'I want to win. I want to be part of something special'.
“They are two-time World Cup winners in a row, and they have obviously been the dominant team over the last eight years and if you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. That is our challenge. “