TOKYO, 1 Nov - Maro Itoje was so ridiculously multi-talented as a child that it was predicted he would dominate the international sporting arena in adulthood. The only question was in which sport.
Such was the England second-row's ability that he was an elite 200m runner, accomplished basketball player and a shot-putter, particularly excelling in the latter.
Itoje was once ranked second in his age group for the shot put and, for many years, rugby was a mere sideshow to his other sporting aspirations.
But since focusing on the oval ball game, he has excelled and his dominance at set-pieces and the breakdown has played a crucial role in propelling England to the final of Rugby World Cup 2019.
During the 2018-2019 English Premiership season, Itoje was outstanding for Saracens, ranking in the top 10 performers for turnovers won (15) and lineout steals (six), and he carried that form into the World Cup, as he showed, pictured above, against Argentina in their Pool C match.
Itoje has won 10 turnovers so far, more than any other player in the competition. Three came in England's victory over the All Blacks in the semi-final, in which he also won seven lineouts and stole one of New Zealand's, earning the Player of the Match award. The clip below shows Itoje's power as he wins a maul turnover against New Zealand.
As well as brute force, Itoje is capable of opportunistic scavenging at the breakdown. In this clip, he wins another turnover against New Zealand, with the aid of Courtney Lawes.
But ever the perfectionist, Itoje was not getting carried away with the performance. "If you want to win a game of rugby you have to win the breakdown battle. Today was no different," he said afterwards. "We weren't perfect but we did a good job."
Standing a towering 1.95m and weighing 115kg, Itoje has also made his presence felt in the field. He is one of the tournament's leading tacklers, weighing in with hits against the All Blacks to put himself seventh in the rankings with 55 so far, just behind team-mate Sam Underhill who has made 62.
That forward dominance has been integral to England’s supreme defence, which restricted Australia and New Zealand to just one try apiece. The clip below also shows his ability at the lineout, an area where he has won the second most of any player at the World Cup (only Argentina's Guido Petti Pagadizábal won more lineouts with 26).
In the final, Itoje's duel with his opposite number four, Eben Etzebeth – an even greater physical specimen at 2.03m and 123kg – will be one of the crucial contests. Etzebeth has been quietly effective so far for the Springboks, making 17 tackles in their knockout matches against Japan and Wales, but also conceding two penalties. England will try to pressure him whenever possible.
The Springboks, in turn, will view Itoje as a potential threat, and weakness, for England. Concerns have been raised in the past about his discipline and they will note that he amassed four yellow cards during Saracens' 2018-2019 season, two of which came in the Premiership and European Champions Cup finals.
Itoje's ability to handle the pressure of the occasion will be crucial for England, but the man himself said he simply cannot wait to get on to the pitch and live out his childhood dreams.
"In 2003 (when England last won the World Cup), I'd have been seven," he said. "The 2007 World Cup was the first that rugby captured my imagination. I first started playing in 2006, so I remember watching the 2007 tournament on a little TV in my room with my brother and getting really excited."