MARO ITOJE was the punchline for a brutal Warren Gatland put-down.
But the Lions boss then killed Itoje with kindness as he revealed Saturday’s man-of-the-match performance was the best he had ever seen him.
After a Six Nations spent giving away endless penalties, Gatland believes that the Saracens star is now at the very top of his game after smashing South Africa.
He said: “I thought it was an excellent performance.
“I made a joke on Monday that it was the first time in about 360-odd games that Maro Itoje hadn’t given away a penalty!
“I spoke to him last night as well, and said maybe the penny has finally dropped.
“Because I thought his decision making around the game in terms of when he went for things, when he decided to leave things alone, I kind of felt in the past he’s chased lost causes and gone after things he didn’t need to do and probably wasted a lot of energy.
“But I thought on Saturday his decision making about when to go after something, counter-ruck at the breakdown and the line-out stuff, was actually outstanding.
“To me that’s probably the best game I’ve seen him play in any sort of jersey.
“We all know the energy he brings to a game and how enthusiastic he is.
“And sometimes that’s probably been to his detriment, because he has been guilty in the past of giving away penalties and probably pushing the limits.
“But I thought we saw an incredibly mature performance last weekend.”
Itoje has spoken about how he hopes that bashing the books will help him bash the Boks.
The rugby geek is a student of the game and is out to make sure he does not end up on the wrong side of history in South Africa just like the 2001 tourists did in Australia.
Graham Henry’s side walloped the Wallabies in the First Test 20 years ago before losing the next two, and the series, Down Under.
Lions lock Itoje played in the drawn series with New Zealand in 2017 and when asked if there was more in the tank after the tourists’ 22-17 First Test win the incredible 26-year-old said: “Yes, definitely.
“There’s so much growth in this team. Game by game we’re getting better, so I think there is more to come from us.
“But the onus is on us to look at what we’ve done. Obviously it was a great win, but I’m a man who likes to look at history and see how other tours unfolded.
“Looking at 2001 in Australia, they won the First Test quite convincingly and then lost the next two.
JOIN SUN VEGAS: GET A FREE £10 BONUS WITH 100s OF GAMES TO PLAY AND NO DEPOSIT REQUIRED (Ts&Cs apply)
Most read in Rugby Union
“We’re happy but we know we need to be better next week, stronger. The Springboks, we know they are coming.
“Winning a Test match with the Lions is rare.
“We only play once every four years and it’s unique but this will mean nothing unless we go out and win next week.”