Courtney Lawes: Drawing on warrior's soul to lead the battle with the Pumas

The young second-rower tells Chris Hewett he likes a 'scuffle' but has caught Martin Johnson's eye with his ability to finish them
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The Independent Online

If Delon Armitage, picked on the England left wing for tomorrow's opening World Cup match against Argentina, could start an argument with his own shaving mirror, Courtney Lawes, selected in the engine room of the scrum, has a reputation for finishing rows that happen to break out in his vicinity. Yet while neither man is likely to be a candidate for any "pacifist of the year" award, there is one significant difference between them: unlike Armitage, who has the hot temper from hell, Lawes is entirely impassive. Which somehow makes him scarier.

"I don't mind the occasional scuffle," he said yesterday as he looked ahead to his meeting with the South American forwards, who have been known to indulge in a little "humpty" down the years. "But if I get involved every now and again it's because I can, not because people get under my skin. The thing is, you can't take a backward step against a team like the Pumas. Go to sleep on them and they'll hurt you. And they'll always fight back, whatever happens."

Lawes is an infant in second-row terms – he does not turn 23 until February – and his cap tally has only just reached double figures, but he is firmly established, in the collective mind of the current England management at least, as the enforcer in the red-rose pack. In terms of raw physical strength, he is probably some way behind the bench-pressing titan Andrew Sheridan; when it comes to purple-faced anger, the increasingly choleric Steve Thompson knocks him into a cocked hat. But Lawes is the man who makes the big physical statements, whether he is clearing out a ruck or tackling an opponent round the fringes of a maul. To the extent, indeed, that there are touches of the young Martin Johnson about him.

Which probably explains Johnson's eagerness to pick him ahead of Tom Palmer, despite the highly significant contribution made by the Stade Français lock over the last 18 months. When Lawes and Palmer partnered each other in the darkened recesses against Australia at Twickenham last November, it was the latter – softly spoken, unfailingly polite, rather studious and just a little foppish by modern rugby standards – who put in the heavy hits that turned the game England's way. Yet if Johnson had been forced to choose between them with the memory of that game fresh in his mind, he would still have gone for the younger man.

It is not simply Lawes' striking athleticism that counts in his favour: on a good day, Palmer is as spring-heeled and mobile as any English lock in recent memory. The advantage the Northampton forward has over the vast majority of rivals is his warrior's soul – a genuine love of the hurly-burly that allows him to view a hopelessly lost cause as a 50-50 opportunity. It is what makes tomorrow's personal contest with Patricio Albacete so tantalising for connoisseurs of close-quarter rugby, for as he proved by playing a central role in Argentina's epic World Cup campaign in France four years ago, the man from Buenos Aires sees life pretty much the same way.

"He's good," acknowledged Lawes, who was touring Australia with the England Under-18s shortly before the 2007 tournament. "I've taken a look at what he does in the line-out and of course, it's important to check on your opponent's size and work out whether it would be a really bad idea to run into him. But mostly, rugby is about playing your own game and trying to impose it. We know the Puma forwards are big, strong players with good hands and a great sense of togetherness. But they have their weaknesses, like everyone else. We'll match them and beat them because we have to. All there is to it."

According to Lawes, among the fittest members of this England squad, the level of conditioning across the red-rose board is extremely high. "During the training camp we were tested every four days and expected to beat our previous marks on each occasion," he said. "Wherever we were in terms of statistics on day one of the cycle, we had to be better on day 25." But what about the more technical aspects of preparation, the fine detail? Tomorrow, Lawes will not have his Northampton colleague and club captain Dylan Hartley throwing to him at the line-out, but the 2003 World Cup-winning veteran Thompson, one of the big winners in the August warm-up programme.

"I know Dylan better than anyone, I guess, and I love the way he throws," said Lawes when asked whether the loss of familiarity might have an effect on proceedings against the Pumas. "There again, Steve threw some great stuff when we played Wales down in Cardiff, especially to the back of the line-out. We do enough work together in training for the change not to matter. It's the quality of the hooker that counts, not the identity."

Everything Lawes has done in an England shirt since making his first Test start against the Wallabies in Sydney some 15 months ago – a spectacularly successful start, given that the red-rose victory that night was only the third on Australian soil – indicates that acceptance of defeat is foreign to him. He is, however, currently giving best when it comes to body decoration. His arms may be pictorial extravaganzas, right down to the wrists as near as damn it, but he has no intention of mounting a serious challenge to either Matt Banahan or Manu Tuilagi, both of whom spend more time in the tattooist's chair. "I'm done with it," he confirmed. "I'll let those two battle it out from now on."

On his right arm, Lawes bears the message: "I owe it all to you." This is dedicated to his parents. Should England find their way into the latter stages of this tournament, they will almost certainly owe a good deal of their success to the youngest forward in the squad.