Lions Origin Story: Farrell and Itoje create Harpenden history
In Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje, Harpenden Rugby Club boast two players who came through their ranks to play a significant role on The British & Irish Lions’ 2017 Tour.
They are both excellent players. We are extraordinarily proud.
Farrell had already experienced a Lions Tour in 2013 but Itoje joined his Saracens teammate four years later as the youngest tourist to New Zealand for the historic drawn series.
Aged just 22 at the time, Itoje was already a two-time European champion with his club and an England international before being selected by Warren Gatland for his first Lions Tour.
And he showed maturity beyond his years as he featured in three of the warm-up matches, scoring a try in the third of those to force his way into the reckoning for the Test side.
He made his first Test appearance from the bench but after the defeat at Eden Park, Itoje was thrust into the first XV as he helped the Lions come from behind to secure a series draw.
THE EARLY BEGINNINGS
Stuart Mitchell coached Itoje, and knew of Farrell’s talent, before they were selected in Gatland’s 41-man squad and has watched on as they have grown into Lions players.
“I think the fact that we have two Lions is incredible for such a small club. It is remarkable, especially when they were on the same Tour,” he said.
“It is incredible enough that they are England players, but the fact they are Lions makes it a great story.”
Mitchell, along with fellow coaches David Reid, John Kennedy, Gus Scrace and Dan Dark, nurtured the two Lions before they joined the Saracens academy.
Farrell’s path to the top of world rugby was plotted when he was a young boy, and the stories of he and fellow England international George Ford kicking balls in the street until dark are well known.
But Itoje’s journey is different. He did not play until the age of 11, and his talent was obvious from the start – with Mitchell insisting his ability to score tries and steal possession stood out immediately.
“He reminded me of Richard Hill, the great Lions player, who is also a hero of mine. Richard played for Saracens, and one of his great abilities is that he is a rock and at a ruck or maul he would get the ball,” he said.
“You always wondered how Richard would come up with the ball. Maro is exactly the same.
“How does he do it? I thought this young man has a lot of talent, and it is such a beautiful story because when he joined Saracens aged 17 he was given a mentor. And that mentor was Richard Hill.
“Richard would come along to Harpenden and stand at the side of the pitch looking at the future in front of us. It was like the circle had gone round and completed its orbit.”
LEARNING FROM THE BEST
Hill, who won five Lions Test caps on three Tours between 1997 and 2005, played for Saracens throughout his career and worked with academy players soon after.
And Mitchell believes he and Itoje share a similar mentality.
“I knew he [Maro] had something and so did Saracens, but there were a lot of young lads who had natural hand-eye co-ordination,” he said.
“But when you see Maro, he has a fantastic rugby temperament. He is very level-headed, as he got older he became a leader of men and led from the front.
“He is able to read the game so well too and motivate the other players.”
Harpenden is a feeder club of Saracens and with such a thriving youth system currently in place, the club could have plenty more Lions players on its hands in the future.
The club was formed in 1919 when several players were having tea in the local ‘Bunty’s tea room’ and decided to create a side.
It took several years for the club to find a settled home, but in 1964 they finally arrived at Deacons Field, Redbourn Lane.
BUILDING FROM THE GRASSROOTS UP
The first team has spent the last two decades competing in county rugby and the London leagues, where Mitchell played for the club – and later felt compelled to coach.
“The idea of coaching was ‘if not me, then who’ because rugby has given me so much and part of the great rugby tradition is that you get to give something back,” he said.
“Having had the honour of playing for the club at different levels, it was great to get involved. One of the things that was most exciting was that of any given Sunday we would have 300 kids running up and down the pitches.
“I think that is phenomenal and I love that, and the thought that these are the grassroots and it is the grassroots that has produced England players and Lions players.”
Mitchell and his fellow coaches created a tight bond with their players – so much so that Itoje often returned to play for the club after he left for a scholarship at Harrow.
“I have got three sons and my middle son, Kieran, was in the same class as Owen and my youngest son, Conor, was with Maro,” he said.
“Owen knew what it was all about a lot earlier because of his background, with Andy Farrell being there and being a part of Saracens there was a natural link.
“But what sets Owen out is his work ethic, he puts the hours in on the pitch – it is just phenomenal.
“Owen was a very focussed young man. Clearly, rugby was his game and he has gone very far. They are both excellent players. We are extraordinarily proud.”