By Nick Said
CAPE TOWN (Reuters) - Maro Itoje believes he can energise the British & Irish Lions and put them on the front foot in the physical battle with South Africa if he is selected in the second row for the first test in Cape Town on Saturday.
The England international is a front-runner to be named in the team by coach Warren Gatland on Wednesday, with the bigger question who will be his partner at lock.
It is a second Lions tour for 26-year-old after he featured against New Zealand four years ago, and he believes he has much more to offer in this series against the world champions.
"This time I’m much more experienced," Itoje told reporters on Tuesday. "First time round it was a new experience being a Lion, and being in the environment. I am now a much more rounded player with a better understanding of the game.
"I probably have a bit more of an understanding of how I can influence the team in a positive way. I have a responsibility to try and help us go forward and energise the team. I know more about my role now than four years ago."
Itoje could be partnered by the most capped player in test history, Alun Wyn Jones, who has made a remarkable recovery from a dislocated shoulder late last month to put himself in contention.
"He looks great, he looks like a 24-year-old. I don’t know what recovery method he is using, but somehow his hair has grown back on the top of his head," Itoje joked.
"But Alun Wyn is a man with a lot of experience, so it is great to have him back. He is desperate to do whatever he can to help the team be successful."
Itoje praised the quality of the South African pack and the "Bomb Squad", the powerful gang of forwards they bring off the bench to keep their momentum going in the second half.
"They have six very good front-row players and it’s a game where the scrum will be important. The front row will do a lot to decide the outcome," Itoje said.
"They are the world champions, they have a team full of quality. But whoever we pick, we will have a strong team as well. We will be able to match them."
(Reporting by Nick Said, editing by Ed Osmond)