Joe Launchbury failed to make the cut for last summer’s British & Irish Lions tour of Australia, although he could have turned up uninvited in some far-flung corner of Wallaby land with nothing more in his kitbag than a muddy pair of tracky bottoms and some scruffy old daps and still have outperformed at least two of the second-rowers selected for that rugby trip of a lifetime. Could this have been a dodgy call by Warren Gatland, the coach who is never wrong? Not really. All things considered, the young Englishman thinks the rejection did him a favour.
There is nothing remotely wistful about Launchbury’s smile as he discusses his omission. “Graham Rowntree [the red-rose forwards coach and a member of the Lions back-room staff] took me aside one day,” he recalls, “and told me: ‘Believe me, Joe, it will be better for you as a player – and probably as a person – if you miss this one.’ And I’m sure he was right. I’d spent the previous few months on the steepest learning curve I could possibly imagine and after discovering so much about myself, as well as about rugby... well, there’s only so much you can realistically pack into a single season, isn’t there?
“The tour wasn’t even in my mind, to tell you the truth,” he adds. “If someone had approached me the previous September and mentioned the Lions, I’d have assumed they were talking to someone standing behind me.”
That said, it is very hard to think of him missing the next Lions adventure, in New Zealand in 2017 – or indeed, the one after that, in South Africa in 2021. If things pan out the way Rowntree and his fellow red-rose strategists intend, he will be the next Alun Wyn Jones figure to emerge in these islands. Maybe even the next Martin Johnson. The England hierarchy genuinely believe he has it in him to reach those towering heights.
The coaches are building the country’s 2015 World Cup pack around the Devon-born, Sussex-raised forward who made his international debut off the bench against Fiji this time last year and has barely put a foot wrong, with the obvious exception of a quiet game against Wales in Cardiff last March – something for which he can be excused, given that every member of that England side bar the captain Chris Robshaw had a rough one that day. Not even Johnson or Simon Shaw, the finest front-jumping locks of the modern red rose era, were playing Test rugby with such potency and authority at 22.
Last week’s victory over Australia at Twickenham shone a fascinating sidelight on the thinking of the national head coach, Stuart Lancaster, and his colleagues as they continue to piece together a forward unit capable of staring down the All Blacks, the Springboks, the French and the Welsh in a little under two years’ time. Launchbury lasted 75 minutes before being replaced by the Bath lock Dave Attwood, and had played a tighter, more direct and significantly more physical game than anything seen hitherto.
It was precisely what Lancaster had asked of him and by delivering in such eye-catching fashion, he announced himself as the new fixed point in the England pack – the unit’s essential structural component. Launchbury the launch pad, if you like.
His performance pushed him well ahead of Attwood in the pecking order. As long ago as 2010, when Johnson was managing the England team, the Bristolian was identified as a potential chief stoker of the boilerhouse fires. After three fallow years, caused in part by a long suspension that sucked the heat from his rugby, he is back in the selection mix. But the coaches see Launchbury as the more athletic option – the engine-room operator with the biggest engine.
“My mindset has changed, definitely,” he says. “A year ago I was still, to a certain degree, a second-row forward with a back-rower’s mentality. Now, I think the days of flitting around between lock and blind-side flanker and changing my game accordingly are over. I just don’t see myself doing it. The England coaches have made it clear that they want me to concentrate on specific things and that’s how I’m channelling my mind.
“As a result, I’m thinking more like a specialist lock: I really look forward to the tight work, unglamorous though it may be, and mixing it with the opposition second-rowers. I’d like to think I haven’t completely lost my old back-row skills, that if the circumstances arise I can still hold the width, run the right support lines, give and take a pass or two. But my priorities are elsewhere and I’m enjoying the demands they’re placing on me.”
That much is obvious. For one thing, Launchbury has bulked up substantially, to the degree that he is now within a kilogram of Attwood in the weights-and-measures department. For another, he has adopted the second-rowers’ code of omerta: the tougher and rougher the rugby, the less he sees and the less he hears.
At the beginning of the final quarter against the Wallabies, the 6ft 7in Wasps player found himself fighting for turnover ball at an Australian ruck. Off his feet in a prone position and in obvious danger of conceding a penalty, he raised his hands to the referee, George Clancy, in the hope of being shown mercy. He obliged… but Launchbury’s opposite number, the massive Sitaleki Timani, did not. Timani lined up his victim, stationary and entirely helpless, and slipped into guided-missile mode, smashing into him horizontally at considerable velocity.
It was precisely this kind of assault, perpetrated by the fearsome Springbok “enforcer” Bakkies Botha, that put the Wales prop Adam Jones in a Pretoria hospital a little over four years ago, and despite the horror of it, such incidents are growing more frequent rather than less. If the International Rugby Board’s legislators were up to speed with this lunacy, they would outlaw it before someone is maimed for life.
Launchbury’s take on the incident? He is supremely – perhaps disturbingly – relaxed about it. “I think I was probably fair game,” he says, seemingly without a care in the world. “I was trying to be the jackal at the tackle, but when you’re 6ft 7in it’s difficult to get your body into the optimum position. I wasn’t on my feet, I was probably on the wrong side of the ruck and I was almost certainly making a nuisance of myself as far as the Wallabies were concerned. I got what was coming to me.”
There speaks a true lock forward – the kind Johnson would have recognised and respected. Today, Launchbury will come face to face with another prime example of the breed, the magnificent Argentina second-rower Patricio Albacete, while on the far side of the Severn Bridge there should be a struggle on the grandest of scales between the Welshman Jones, who led the Lions to victory in Sydney four months ago, and Eben Etzebeth of South Africa, a second-rower so gifted that wholly new levels of performance are within his reach.
“Our match-up with the Pumas will tell us a lot about ourselves,” says Launchbury. “When they pull on their national jersey, their sense of pride goes off the scale. It’s going to be massively physical.” An honours-even outcome with Albacete will raise the youngster’s stock still further, but the men he really has his eye on are Jones and Etzebeth, the market leaders. England’s coaches believe he has chosen two realistic targets.
Poms v the Pumas: Three bitter struggles
England 24 Argentina 18
May 1995, Durban, Rugby World Cup pool stage
England travelled to South Africa as Grand Slam winners but struggled horribly in their opening pool match as a front row of Patricio Noriega, Federico Mendez and Matias Corral dominated the scrums. The Pumas scored the only two tries but fell to the precision boot of Rob Andrew. They lost to Italy and Western Samoa and ended up bottom of Pool B.
Argentina 18 England 26
June 2002, Buenos Aires, summer tour
One of the landmark victories that fuelled England’s surge to the world title, which they secured 17 months later. Clive Woodward rested the vast majority of his front-line players. Led by Phil Vickery, the young replacements scored tries through Phil Christophers and Ben Kay, with the boots of Charlie Hodgson and Tim Stimson seeing them home.
England 18 Argentina 25 November 2006, Twickenham, autumn international
The game that left coach Andy Robinson in sacking territory after a seventh straight defeat. England were nerve-ravaged; Argentina, just entering their golden age, were led by the brilliant scrum-half Agustin Pichot. Toby Flood, on for his debut, threw a match-losing interception pass to Federico Todeschini late on.