London – Maro Itoje believes England will be led by one of rugby’s brightest minds when flyhalf George Ford captains the side against 2019 Rugby World Cup hosts Japan at Twickenham on Saturday.
Ford has been promoted from the bench for England’s penultimate match of the November campaign, having provided cover for Owen Farrell in a 12-11 win over South Africa and a 16-15 loss to world champions New Zealand at Twickenham this month.
But England coach Eddie Jones has repeatedly stressed the need for players to be comfortable both starting and finishing games heading into the World Cup.
And by promoting the 25-year-old Ford, who will be winning his 50th cap on Saturday, Jones has given the stand-off a chance to show he can lead the team should either Farrell or regular co-captain Dylan Hartley be unavailable during Japan 2019.
“George is a great orator and his knowledge of the game is superb,” said Saracens lock Itoje.
“Him and Owen Farrell… I don’t think I know anybody who knows more about rugby than those two.
“If there was a PhD in rugby those guys would be double doctorates and I would be a student in their classes,” added Itoje, who is himself studying for a degree in African politics at London University.
“George’s knowledge of the game is second to none and in my opinion he has led the guys brilliantly this week,” the British and Irish Lions second-row added.
“It’s a big week for him with it being his 50th cap and he deserves the accolades. To win 50 caps at the age of 25 is impressive.”
Saturday’s fixture is only the second full Test between England and Japan, with the Brave Blossoms looking to climb up the world rankings.
It was with Jones as their coach that Japan produced the greatest upset in rugby union history when they beat South Africa 34-32 during the 2015 World Cup in Brighton.
And last year saw Japan hold France to a highly creditable draw in Paris.
Itoje, as befitting a politics student, highlighted the broader context of Saturday’s match.
“It’s good that tier-one nations play traditional tier-two nations,” he said.
“I don’t know the economics of it, but we are in a fairly advantageous position compared to them (Japan). These kinds of games help the sport grow.”
Meanwhile Itoje was confident England, who have made 11 changes to their starting XV, would not suffer an emotional let-down following their agonising loss to the All Blacks.
“Japan are ranked a lot lower than us but they are actually a good team,” he said.
“They have some big boys.
“They’re well-drilled and well-coached. Eddie has given us an insight into them and we know it definitely won’t be easy.”
15 Elliot Daly, 14 Joe Cokanasiga, 13 Jack Nowell, 12 Alex Lozowski, 11 Chris Ashton, 10 George Ford (captain), 9 Danny Care, 8 Zach Mercer, 7 Mark Wilson, 6 Courtney Lawes, 5 Maro Itoje, 4 Charlie Ewels, 3 Harry Williams, 2 Jamie George, 1 Alec Hepburn
Substitutes: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Ted Hill, 20 Sam Underhill, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Henry Slade
15 William Tupou, 14 Akihito Yamada, 13 Timothy Lafaele, 12 Ryoto Nakamura, 11 Kenki Fukuoka, 10 Yu Tamura, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Kazuki Himeno, 7 Masakatsu Nishikawa, 6 Michael Leitch (captain), 5 Uwe Helu, 4 Wimpie van der Walt, 3 Jiwon Koo, 2 Atsushi Sakate, 1 Keita Inagaki
Substitutes: 16 Yusuke Niwai, 17 Koki Yamamoto, 18 Asaeli Ai Valu, 19 Samuela Anise, 20 Hendrik Tui, 21 Shunsuke Nunomaki, 22 Yutaka Nagare, 23 Rikiya Matsuda