LONDON (Reuters) - If the All Blacks were not already aware of the impact Maro Itoje could have on the British and Irish Lions tour, his coach Warren Gatland just painted a big target on the 22-year-old's broad shoulders.
Itoje, World Rugby's Breakthrough Player of the Year, had a barnstorming Six Nations for England in the second row and as blindside flanker, and Gatland felt he could be singled out in New Zealand.
"He could be a player they may target, and I'll be interested to see how he responds to that," the former All Blacks hooker told The Telegraph newspaper on Thursday.
"They might see him as potentially a key for the Lions and see if they can shut him down, or physically dominate him.
"He's going to have to learn from that."
Gatland said while the All Blacks were known for their open, fast-paced game, many overlooked the contribution of their forwards and their ability to muscle up and turn a game into "a bit of a dogfight".
It was in such moments that Itoje might get targeted, Gatland suspected, but the 53-year-old also felt the tour could be the making of the rangy Saracens player.
"The more he plays the better he's going to get. He's got a massive engine on him and his work-rate is just phenomenal," Gatland added.
"Hopefully we can get him to play a little bit smarter in terms of picking his moments, with that youthful enthusiasm of trying all the time.
"He's just involved in everything. Just looking at him, he will respond to that challenge."
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Ian Ransom