The shadow of rugby’s greatest upset loomed large on Saturday as the Brave Blossoms earned a 15-10 half-time lead that would have been larger still had the inspirational Michael Leitch been able to score his second try.
England took control through Mark Wilson’s touch down just before the final quarter arrived, but it was only when Joe Cokanasiga powered over in the 72nd minute that the underdogs were truly beaten.
Japan humbled South Africa at the 2015 World Cup in a result that sent shockwaves through the game and Itoje has revealed the desperation to avoid a similar outcome in the third autumn Quilter International.
“I definitely didn’t want that to happen here,” said Itoje, recalling the Springboks’ 34-32 defeat that is being made into a film called Miracle of Brighton.
“I definitely didn’t want to be a part of the first England side to lose to Japan. That was a big motivation, but we shouldn’t have even been in that situation in the first place.
“It was a good lesson for us to have. No team is easy in international rugby. If you don’t turn up you’re going to find yourself getting beaten.”
Head coach Eddie Jones spared his players the hairdryer treatment at half-time, instead challenging them “is that how we want to play?” as calamity loomed in only the second Test between the nations.
Owen Farrell’s arrival after the interval turned the tide as England moved through the gears, but Jones was also impressed by Itoje’s contribution to a team showing 11 changes from the XV controversially beaten by New Zealand a week earlier.
“There was a change in effort and attitude and Owen exemplified that. Maro also stepped forward and became a driving force,” said Jones.
“That’s what you want from your best players. When you’re down and you’re struggling you want your best players to lift you and they did that exceptionally well.
“Maro is fantastic. By this time next year, at the World Cup, he’ll be the best lock in the world.”
George Ford, leading the team on his 50th cap, admitted England’s attitude was wrong in a dismal first half and Itoje will be part of the inquest that examines why Japan were allowed to take control after Danny Care darted over in the third minute.
“We have to make sure we have that top attitude every single time we pull on an England shirt,” Itoje said. “Our attitude wasn’t. It wasn’t quite right. We were off as a collective and we have to have a think why that was the case. Maybe our early try seduced us a little bit.
“Sometimes it’s better when you have to work a little bit harder and maybe not score straight away.
“We started better than that against South Africa and New Zealand. We need make sure against Australia we don’t start like that.”
Jones joked that he felt too old to deliver a half-time ear-bashing.
“It’s different these days. Once you get past 55 you tone it down,” he smiled.
“We just talked about the fact we needed more effort and needed to get stuck in. We weren’t getting stuck in, but started doing that in the second half. It’s really pleasing and our players will learn a lot about that.”
He added: “We wanted a game that would test us. We put out a different team (than against New Zealand) and different combinations and wanted to see how players were combining in different positions.”
He too felt England’s attitude was impacted negatively by the early try.
“The players subconsciously think it’s going to be easy and we knocked off a bit in our effort and attitude, which is disappointing,” he said, adding: “but I thought our second-half response was excellent.”
Japan’s head coach Jamie Joseph said: “I’m very proud of how our players matched England physically most of the time.”
England: Daly, Cokanasiga, Nowell, Lozowski (Farrell 41), Ashton, Ford, Care (Wigglesworth 60), Hepburn (Moon 49), George (Hartley 73), Williams (Sinckler 51), Ewels (Hill 75), Itoje, Lawes, Wilson, Mercer (Underhill 49). Unused replacement: Slade.
Japan: Tupou, Yamada, Lafaele, Nakamura, Fukuoka, Tamura (Matsuda 70), Tanaka (Nagare 41), Inagaki, Sakate (Niwai 70), Koo, van der Walt, Helu (Anise 41), Leitch, Nishikawa, Himeno (Tui 60). Unused replacements: Yamanaka, Ai Valu, Nunomaki.