Courtney Lawes: Lawes locks down place in England's second row
Martin Johnson says his tackles make a distinctive sound and plenty of opponents will agree – the athletic Saint is out to make his mark. Hugh Godwin meets Courtney Lawes
England's new generation of professional rugby players spend a fair chunk of time schmoozing sponsors, but it is to top up earnings that are a galaxy away from the galacticos of music and soccer. If Courtney Lawes becomes a World Cup winner in the next seven weeks, he and his fellow England squad members will earn a reported £50,000 bonus each, plus around £40,000 in appearance money.
The chances of this coming to pass are rated a remote 14-1 by Coral and Ladbrokes and 16-1 by Paddy Power, but the odds might be even longer without Lawes. There was a period when the England manager, Martin Johnson, appeared to be resisting stubbornly the calls in the press and elsewhere to make the 6ft 7in Northampton second row a mainstay. It didn't last long. From a toe-in-the-water substitute appearance in the autumn of 2009 – five months after his awesomely powerful contribution to the Under-20 World Championship and not much longer since he left Northampton Grammar School for Boys and Moulton College – Lawes received his first England start in the morale-boosting second-Test victory in Australia in June 2010. The Twickenham series last autumn, when each of the Tri-Nations came calling, proved Lawes as a force capable of going toe to toe with the Brad Thorns, Bakkies Bothas and Nathan Sharpes of this world – even if defeats by New Zealand and South Africa confirmed England were a few notches below top class.
"I'm not apprehensive about playing any individual player," Lawes says, when we meet just before the team's departure for New Zealand. "Everyone has got weaknesses and strengths, and as long as you know those you are going to do OK against them. I enjoy playing against players that are very good, and big players like Botha. It's not sensible to run straight into him, you've got to try and work your way round him. Like I say, everyone's got weaknesses and everyone's got strengths."
Lawes says he felt comfortable in that rarefied company as early as that 2010 match in Sydney and he is confident – thought not overly brash – enough to state his own strengths. "I've got a bit of agility and a bit of athleticism and I can still front up and make a hit when I need to." Those big tackles inspired Johnson to an uncharacteristically lyrical description after a recent training session . "Someone said when he [Lawes] is playing you can hear it when he's hitting them," Johnson said. "There's a distinctive noise." And the general verdict? "Courtney's the most athletic second row I've seen in terms of pace round the field," Johnson said. "He gives you some real defensive line speed and he can obviously hit very hard. He's an instinctive player and he's got a good level of intensity and aggression as well. He's developing into an all-round second row."
It was Johnson of course who set England's benchmark in that position: rough and tough in scrum and maul; agile enough to do his bit in line-out and loose play. And utterly indomitable, all round. A totem of the team. Lawes plays as the lighter lock on the loosehead side of the scrum, whereas Johnson's present-day successors on the normally bulkier tighthead side include Simon Shaw and Louis Deacon. But what England's supporters are beginning to expect from Lawes – as they were used to with Johnson – was summed up by an old Irish hooker in a bar room chat after last weekend's 20-9 win in Dublin: "I loved to look around a dressing room and see one guy you knew you could follow all day long. Two or three was even better, but one was enough."
So how does Lawes – who was born in Hackney in north London before his Jamaican dad, Linford, moved the family to Northampton, where Courtney's mum, Valerie, was from – feel about having a legend of the game and his position overseeing his every England move?
"Johnno's a very inspiring man," Lawes says, "not just as he was as a player, but in training and stuff he always puts his points across. He's good that way. He helps me in particular with certain aspects of the game that I'm not particularly bad at, but he was good at. It's good to get pointers from someone who was very good at the tight game, mauling and rucks and things like that." Do they work one to one? "No, just in a session, if he spots me doing something I could do better he comes over and gives me pointers. 'Keep your shape, keep your height' – generally to keep my body height down lower as you approach the rucks. It's good getting a buzz from people who have been there and done it."
And how about a spot of socialising? "I don't really spend too much time speaking to coaches," Lawes says, with a smile, "The coaches have their team dinners and we – the players – have ours. I do see a lot of the lads having a laugh with Johnno, especially the ones that have played with him. Generally he's a really nice guy; he's stern when he needs to be and he knows how to relax as well."
Lawes, you sense, understands the danger of England investing too much hope in a manager – however much he is adored by the public – who no longer laces his boots in anger. There was a hiccup in relations when Lawes missed the first three matches of this year's Six Nations Championship with a knee injury, and was not selected by Johnson for the last two.
But he was capped at the age of 20 – so too Ben Youngs, the scrum-half, and Manu Tuilagi, the Samoan-born centre – which gave a partial riposte to accusations over Johnson's conservatism. There has been received wisdom, too, over the now former captain and second row, Steve Borthwick: that he was the wrong choice as skipper, that Johnson stuck by him too long and then dropped him mercilessly a year ago. The counter argument is that there were no other captaincy candidates when Borthwick was picked, and he did a good job running the line-out until his usefulness ended.
The line-out calls and analysis are made now by whoever is on the field out of Deacon, Tom Palmer, Tom Croft and Tom Wood.
"I like getting the ball and I like defending the line-out but I don't like thinking too much into what calls are going to be made," says Lawes. "I want to see where I'm going to be on the pitch to be as effective as I can. I was a bit disappointed not being selected for the end of the Six Nations, and watching was a bit tough especially when we were losing the last match. But I felt good when I was back fit, making plenty of tackles and carrying really well again. I'm looking to get back in my stride and be making more hits."
With doubt over the fitness of Lewis Moody, the captain and openside flanker, Johnson needs to dovetail the speed around the field of Lawes and Croft with front-five muscle, to see England past the forward-dominated approach of their pool opponents, Argentina, Georgia, Romania and Scotland. With the Wallabies appearing to have got their front-row act together at last, the forwards' task will be no easier along the likeliest knockout path, where England are seeded to meet France and Australia in the quarter- and semi-finals.
"Playing Wales and Ireland in pre-season has been tough," says Lawes. "Normally you'd warm up for your club against a Div One team or someone. But we need to be patient and once we get back into the rhythm of playing we'll be a good team. Last autumn, the Australia game [England won 35-18] was a very exciting match. That fast style is definitely there and we need confidence and trust in each other, that if someone goes we just back him and make the best out of that call. It doesn't matter if a poor decision is made as long as everyone goes through with it, it will become a good decision. Sometimes you need to kick the ball off the pitch to take the pressure off. It's little tweaking things that will make a big difference."
Lawes's botched sidedoor pass against Ireland last weekend was the difference between a possible try and a chance wasted, and the fist he beat into the Dublin turf showed he knew it. A few choice words shouted by an angry Ben Foden outside him made the point too, just in case.
"I've been to New Zealand a couple of times," says Lawes. "With England to Napier last year when I didn't play and in the last year of school when we went to Auckland and a few other places. We played one of their top schools and they smashed us. You learn a lot from things like that. I know what the place is like and I want to focus on doing the best for my country and enjoy playing in a World Cup, which is the biggest honour you can have."
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