PARIS, France — England will not be intimidated by South Africa when they face the Springboks in Saturday’s Rugby World Cup semifinal, according to Maro Itoje.
Itoje, 28, was defiant on Thursday about England’s chances against South Africa, the number one ranked team in the world, as the semifinal draws closer. England head into the match as underdogs, but according to Itoje, this isn’t a team going into the match with any sense of awe over their opponents in waiting.
“They’re a good team,” Itoje said. “Obviously they are the current world champions, they’ve had a very good World Cup. We’ve played them twice since 2019, they’ve won one, we’ve won one. We’re not talking about a team that has never lost, we’re not talking about a team that is without fault, they are a good team but so are we.
“For us, it’s about putting our game on the field, it’s not necessarily about sitting just to watch them.”
For all the talk from the Springboks camp that England might have “beef” with South Africa after they lost the 2019 World Cup final, Itoje and his teammates have ignored any talk of this being a chance for payback.
“it’s a different experience, different context, different opposition,” Itoje said, who started that World Cup final in Yokahama.
So instead it’s about England looking to continue the momentum they’ve built at the World Cup, as they remain the only unbeaten team still in the competition. South Africa head into the semifinal off the back of an impressive win over hosts France last Sunday, while England will take heart from their win over Fiji in Marseille.
For Itoje, it’ll be another chance to come up against one of the best locks in the world in Eben Etzebeth. But he’s not looking at this as a chance to test himself against the Springbok.
“It’s neither here nor there for me,” Itoje said. “Obviously he’s a good player, they have four very good second rows, for me it’s about playing the type of game I want to play, playing the type of rugby that I know I can play as an individual and for the whole forward pack it’s about presenting the best of ourselves.”
Itoje will have a new second-row partner on Saturday with George Martin one of three changes from the team that beat Fiji. Martin starts alongside Martin in the second-row, Joe Marler replaces Ellis Genge at loose-head and Freddie Steward starts instead of Marcus Smith, who’s going through return to play protocols.
Itoje says Martin is “tough man, a tough tackler,” and someone who “enjoys the scraps.” And Itoje says it’ll take a complete performance from England to get past the Boks. “They’re just very fundamentally sound in the areas in which they are good at,” Itoje said of South Africa.
“They have a good kicking game, a good chase, put a lot of pressure on teams, looking at what they did against France, they put a lot of pressure on France and the kicking game and scored tries off the back of that.
“They have a good set-piece, that goes without saying, their breakdown work is good as well. When you get to this level all the teams are good. We’re no longer talking about tier one versus tier two, this is the very top. They are fundamentally a good team.”
But despite this, Itoje is adamant England will be celebrating on Saturday night and will be toasting another World Cup final appearance.
“This isn’t just another game,” Itoje said. “This is a special game. These are special games and you don’t get many opportunities like this. It is about us seizing the moment, being present and taking any opportunities we get.
“I believe the best is yet to come. I believe that if we put our best out on the field, we are going to be celebrating on Saturday night and have a positive night.”