Chris Foy of the Daily Mail talks to Courtney Lawes about his life in rugby.
It as an impulsive decision which Courtney Lawes has good reason to be thankful for, as have Northampton, England and the Lions. He was a teenager before suddenly giving rugby a try – and the rest is history.
Many players who reach the heights begin the journey at a very young age, in the mini sections of clubs, or drawn to the sport because of a family background in it. Not Lawes. His arrival in the game came relatively late, but he soon made up for lost time.
Following the launch of the RFU’s Game of our Lives campaign, designed to celebrate rugby’s people, culture and ethos, the lock reflected on where it all began for him, almost by chance.
“I was 13 and Northampton School of Boys were having a trial for their first years, to put a rugby team together,” he said. “I just decided to give it a crack. I’d never thought about it before, it was just on a whim really. It was a pretty good whim.”
Camaraderie and bonds
Lawes certainly has cause to be glad that he went to that trial, which effectively changed his life, as it set him on the way towards the professional career which has been so fulfilling.
But for all the fame and caps and plaudits which have come his way over the years, since he became a home-town hero with the Saints and made his England debut in 2009, the 28 year old recognises that the sport has also given him so much more than that.
“Rugby is just a really social game,” he said. “I’ve still got friends that I used to play with at school and I’ve still got friends that I used to play with at lower club level – local teams. I think it’s really good at helping to build up your confidence and integrate with other kids of your age, and grow that way.
“Especially if you’re in a team for a while, you never lose that connection you have with the boys you play with. There’s a real camaraderie in terms of playing rugby with your mates. We do put ourselves through an awful lot on a weekly basis, so that makes those bonds even tighter between you.”
Dedicated to the game
A key aspect of the Game of our Lives campaign is the dedication of people at the heart of the game and every one of the players in the England squad has grass-roots champions to thank for aiding their progress. Lawes is eternally grateful to his parents for supporting his ambition, by driving him around the country to training and matches, but there were others who made it all possible.
“There’s Paul Bryant, who was my first rugby coach at Northampton School for Boys – and also Norman Barker,” he said. “They were my school coaches. Chris Parr was the guy who coached me at Northampton Old Scouts and I’m still very good friends with him now. I speak to him all the time. He’s the one who actually called Saints to come and have a look at me.
“I try to give a bit back, so I sorted a load of stuff and helped because Mr Bryant was taking a load of boys on tour. The school goes on tour, which was good for me as well, so I did whatever I could to get stuff for that evening and went along. I still speak to those school coaches and sometimes we train down at Northampton School for Boys too.”
Peak of his powers
Those from his past will be proud of his present-day efforts. Lawes has been operating at the very peak of his powers for most of 2017.
He has played 59 Tests for England and has been around the set-up for eight years now, but some of his recent work has also been undoubtedly his finest. He had acquired a cult status as a big-hitting defender, but other elements of his game had declined. Eddie Jones arrived as the new national coach and promptly rattled his cage.
The Australian demanded that Lawes rediscover his ball-carrying prowess, which had been less evident once he had become an established international player. A series of injury setbacks had hampered his mid-career progress but, as the fitness problems have receded, his full repertoire has become apparent again.
Lawes was a towering presence for Northampton at the tail end of last season and he had already done enough in an impressive Six Nations campaign to earn a place in the Lions squad.
Once picked, he rose to the challenge and ended up forcing his way into the Test 23, coming off the bench to make a telling impact as Warren Gatland’s tourists won the second Test and drew the third to tie the series with the All Blacks.
For club and country, Lawes has flitted between the second and back rows, as his versatility has allowed him to pack down at lock or blind-side flanker. But as well as continuing to offer aerial prowess and thunderous tackling, he has rekindled the ability to make yards in heavy traffic, with nifty footwork and body-positioning, as well as sheer power and will."When the ball is in your hands or you’re making a tackle, you get that burst of adrenalin."
His form this season has been titanic, in a Saints side who have endured fluctuating fortunes, yet Jones chose to rattle his cage again prior to this autumn campaign, by suggesting that Lawes’ form had dipped. It turns out that an illness had left him feeling physically drained.
Thankfully for England, that phase has been and gone.
“I feel a lot better than I did for the last few weeks before we went into camp,” said Lawes.
“I think I had some kind of virus for a month or so. I’ve managed to get out the back end of that now. I was just really tired all the time, didn’t have a lot of energy and was getting out of breath quick. There’s a massive difference between how I feel now and how I felt a couple of weeks ago.
“When the ball is in your hands or you’re making a tackle, you get that burst of adrenalin, but I just think my work-rate wasn’t quite as high as it normally is and I think that’s what Eddie was getting at. He picked it up, even though he didn’t know I was ill!”
Jones knows what Lawes can do when he is fit and well, and he too will be glad that – 15 years ago – the tall Northampton schoolboy decided to act on a whim.
For more information visit englandrugby.com/gameofourlives
Tell us what rugby means to you