The England Rugby team of 2015 is a diverse group drawn from all four corners of the country. How did they start their journeys in the sport which has given them so much and what, allied to their undoubted talent and dedication, made the difference in those crucial early years? England Rugby TV investigates the rugby roots of a range of stars from different regions, continuing with Courtney Lawes in Northampton.
“I don’t think fame is a concept that he even understands. He’s just quite happy to get on with playing rugby and I don’t think he’s very interested in everything else that goes with it.”
Chris Parr, the sincere and genial coach at Northampton Old Scouts Rugby Club, is making an assessment of the character of his former teenage charge Courtney Lawes, a man who made a remarkable rise to the pinnacle of rugby.
Lawes, a towering, lean lock forward of immense physical ability, has a style (not uncommon among elite athletes) that contrasts graceful hyper-activity on the pitch with complete economy of movement off it.
Indeed, his languid, laidback delivery forms a marked contrast with the steely-eyed intensity of previous Rugby Roots interviewee and fellow second row Geoff Parling. But it should not be misinterpreted as a lack of commitment or desire.
As soon as the 25 year-old starts talking about how he got started in the sport, it’s crystal clear why the talented footballer and basketball player opted for rugby. Quite simply for Lawes, unadulterated enjoyment was the most important aspect.
“I was into a lot of sports and pretty much played everything at my school,” he recalls. “I heard there were rugby trials going on so I went along and picked it up pretty quickly – I made a few big tackles and stuff. I obviously didn’t have a clue and was running around like a headless chicken but I really enjoyed myself and it went on from there.
"I don't think fame is a concept that Courtney understands"
“I suppose I was a bit of a nutter, so I liked getting stuck in and getting involved with the physical aspect of it. I just enjoyed playing and you meet some really good people playing rugby.
“I’m the kind of person that whatever I enjoy and do a lot I get good at quite quickly, which is due to doing it all the time.”
The Northampton Saint is understated at best and there is not a hint of arrogance in the statement that he tends to “get good quite quickly” at whatever he turns his hand to.
After first picking up a rugby ball aged 15 at Northampton School for Boys – a state-funded school just a stone’s throw from his hometown club – he came off the bench as a fresh-faced 20 year-old for Martin Johnson’s England against Australia in November 2009.
But perhaps even more surprisingly, the school pupil was put forward for a county trial just two months after his first training session and before playing a competitive game.
In an enduring rugby town such as Northampton there is a sense that rugby would find a “tall, gangly, natural athlete” as Parr fondly remembers him, rather than a boy from a non-rugby family needing to seek out the sport himself.
Lawes has a lengthy highlights reel of shuddering hits from his professional career and Parr says he brought that intrepid approach from his first sessions.
"He was fearless and had natural ball-playing ability"
“Courtney was absolutely fearless, he sometimes got it wrong but the contact side was what he enjoyed the most, there was no doubt about that.
“He was very raw but had natural ball-playing ability. That was the easy bit, then it was a case of working on the skills that he needed to play. When people talk about what he’s achieved, the biggest thing that has contributed is his own hard work. He has worked extremely hard for a lot of years to get to where he is now.”
Lawes will miss the start of the 2015 RBS 6 Nations after a minor ankle operation but hopes to return to the engine room of England’s pack to play some part in the campaign.
Modestly assertive in calling England’s lineout, the 36-cap man is a vocal leadership figure for head coach Stuart Lancaster. However, that was not always the case and for Val Lawes, Courtney’s cheerfully direct mum, rugby (and sport in general) was a method of bringing his personality out.
“Courtney had a certain physicality about him as a child and always had good hand-eye coordination but he was really quiet. That’s why we took him to football in the first place, to try and bring him out of himself.
“He was really enthusiastic [after his first few sessions], he absolutely loved playing. I think he enjoyed the energy of it and the structure.”
Val and Linford, Courtney’s Jamaican father, are far from overbearing parents – “I wouldn’t know how to push him into rugby” – but what has he taken away from his upbringing that helps him as a player and professional athlete?
Lawes describes his mum, a Senior Prison Officer at Gartree Prison, as “tough” and his dad, a property developer and former nightclub doorman as “real tough, but chilled”.
Discussing her job and its impact on her sons – Lawes’ brother Cameron is eight years his junior – Val says: “I’ve worked at quite a few jails, with male and female prisoners.
“When I put my uniform on I’m a very different person to what you see sitting in front of you. Sometimes it’s quite scary at work and while I try not to intimidate people too much I can be very forthright as well.
“Obviously my work life is all about discipline, but also I believe in that as a structure when you’re bringing up your kids.”
Lawes is close to his dad and has adopted his attitude of not taking life too seriously. “Similar to my dad, I like to take life easy but enjoy the moments you get,” he says.
“Having that from him means that I don’t get too worked up about games, whether they are big finals or playing for England. It’s important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all, as long as you enjoy doing it you’re probably going to be alright.
“My family has never put a lot of pressure on me the achieve anything or go and be the best or whatever and that’s helped me in my personality. I’m the same as my family, I go out there and do my best and then hope that that is enough.”
Understandably proud of what her son has achieved, Val gives off the impression that she still cannot quite believe what has happened to a group of normal people from Northampton.
"I've got a tough exterior but he's my son. I love him and I'm so proud of what he's done"
“It’s been a whirlwind, it has completely swept us off our feet,” she smiles. “We’re just an ordinary family. I work, my husband works and we just get on with life. You don’t expect these things to come into your life, it’s been a blessing.
“I’ve got a tough exterior but it’s my son at the end of the day. I love him and I’m so proud of what he’s done.”
Playing for his hometown club, Lawes feels a strong sense of responsibility – aware he can influence young people in Northampton to pick up a rugby ball and, in line with his outlook, simply enjoy themselves.
And with that legacy already extending into his immediate family – brother Cameron stands 6’ 5” at just 16 and is following his brothers’ long-striding path through Northampton Old Scouts to the Saints Academy – what would the prospect of two sons representing their country mean to an already overjoyed mum?
“Oh don’t, you’ll start me off now,” Val concludes in her matter-of-fact style. “You’d see me blubbering all the way to Twickenham.”