Saracens vs Wasps: Joker Nick Isiekwe forging his own path for Saracens despite Maro Itoje comparisons

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Players are not normally put up to the media alongside one another, but on the rare occasion, it works. This week’s double-act of Alex Lozowski and Maro Itoje proved to be one of those.

“Erm, sometimes,” says Lozowski. “Maybe like one in five.”

“20 per cent, not too bad,” is Itoje’s answer.

The Saracens teammates are talking about the latter’s repertoire of good jokes, a conversation that neither were expecting to walk into. “Richard Barrington’s a bit of a character. Him just being him makes most people laugh,” adds Lozowski. “I’d say me, Maro and Baz in the same changing room keeps us all entertained, even in the depths of winter we can get smiles on faces.”

It is a conversation representative of the mood at Saracens ahead of the Premiership semi-finals, with Saturday’s opponents Wasps standing between them and a place in the final against either Exeter Chiefs or Newcastle Falcons. As the sun beat down on the club’s St Albans training base, the sight of Billy Vunipola charging around at full throttle will be a sight to behold for a club that has had to make do without their No 8 for all but 248 minutes this season.

With Vunipola back in the starting line-up – opposite another returning England international in Nathan Hughes who is back much sooner than expected following a knee injury – and Michael Rhodes also available, Saracens are starting to look like something of the side that won the European Champions Cup last season.

But interestingly enough, Rhodes does not start. The blindside flanker shirt instead goes to 20-year-old Nick Isiekwe, whose meteoric rise this season continues at pace. Isiekwe made his England debut on last year’s tour of Argentina despite just two Premiership appearances for Saracens, but this season he has been one of the linchpins of the side and has remained in and around the England set-up, with the lock-cum-flanker named in Eddie Jones’ squad for the tour of South Africa next month.

“Nick has always had tremendous athletic ability, but what’s impressed me most about him this last year has been his change in attitude to his work, to his craft and he’s now more diligent with his preparation and how he prepares himself for games which he didn’t have maybe at the beginning. Now he’s becoming a proper professional,” Itoje said of his teammate.

“We have a lot of people at the club who are more specialised in some areas than myself in terms of nutrition, strength and conditioning, those types of things, so there’s the right people to guide him in that way. But as any other teammate you try and help where you can and try to add value because ultimately if Nick’s better, the team is better and that increases our chances of winning.

“That’s the same with any player. Loz [Lozowski] tells me many a time to work harder when I’m feeling a little bit tired so I think that’s what we expect from one another and Nick does work very hard and he’s becoming a very good player, if not already.”

But do not be fooled. If this high praise from the man who took the British and Irish Lions tour last season by storm gives a ringing endorsement of Isiekwe’s work ethic, there is his other side to consider.

“Nick’s pretty funny as well, but not because he tries to be, he’s just a bit of a joke,” Itoje adds in jest. “He’s very goofy, so he comes across quite funny.”

Lozowski provides context to this. Asked for an example, the utility back replies: “Telling a lie then admitting that he’s told a lie. And then getting his head shaved for it.” What happened? “Can’t repeat it. You can ask him.”

Joking aside though, the parallels between Itoje and Isiekwe do lead to something of a comparison. Both are capable of playing at lock and flanker, both play for Saracens and England, and both have Nigerian heritage. It would be easy to think that for Isiekwe to be successful he must follow in the footsteps of Itoje, but this is not the case.

“He’s already said that Mako Vunipola is his mentor, not me,” Itoje said. “I guess you hear it [the comparison] but Nick’s his own man, he’s a very good player as well and I think as this season has shown he’s done incredibly well so far.”

Although both Itoje and Isiekwe are heading out on the England tour next month, it’s unlikely that they’ll start the first Test together even though both Courtney Lawes and George Kruis will not feature. That’s due to the presence of Joe Launchbury, the 52-cap forward that will be looking to plot the downfall of Saracens this weekend.

Launchbury will captain a Wasps side that will need to fire on all cylinders to take the game to Saracens. In what could potentially be the final game for teammates Danny Cipriani, James Haskell and Guy Thompson, Launchbury will want to lead from the front with a performance that inspires the rest of his pack to produce the type of clean ball that Wasps’ all-star back line can decimate any side with, and Itoje is wary of what his opposite number can do.

“He’s a tremendous player,” Itoje acknowledged. “Over the last three years I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know him relatively well. First and foremost, he’s a lovely human being, but he’s also a tremendous player. He’s their captain, he leads from the front. Whenever you play against him you know you’re going to have to be ready. I like playing against the best locks in the country, so I look forward to playing against him and the rest of their pack on the weekend.

When did I last see him? I saw Joe I think at a testimonial. I’ve been to a few recently, but I think I saw him at one. It’s pleasant. In camp you end up spending a lot time with a lot of the squad, so you do grow a friendship, but it doesn’t change the fact that there’s a job to do and I’m hoping to help my team-mates.”

Saracens and Wasps hold a long history together that stems from the latter’s previous days in London, and with so much on the line this weekend, it’ll take an Itoje or a Launchbury – or even an Isiekwe – to decide which way that result goes.

Saracens vs Wasps team news

Saracens: Alex Goode; Sean Maitland, Alex Lozowski, Brad Barritt, Chris Wyles; Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Vincent Koch; Maro Itoje, George Kruis; Nick Isiekwe, Jackson Wray, Billy Vunipola.

Replacements: Schalk Brits, Richard Barrington, Juan Figallo, Will Skelton, Michael Rhodes, Ben Spencer, Marcelo Bosch, Nathan Earle.

Wasps: Willie Le Roux; Christian Wade, Juan De Jongh, Jimmy Gopperth, Elliot Daly; Danny Cipriani, Dan Robson; Ben Harris, Tom Cruse, Jake Cooper-Woolley; Joe Launchbury, Kearnan Myall; Jack Willis, Thomas Young, Nathan Hughes.

Replacements: TJ Harris, Matt Mullan, Marty Moore, James Gaskell, Guy Thompson, Joe Simpson, Kyle Eastmond, Josh Bassett.

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