By Alan Dymock
HIS STUDS had barely begun to sink into the sodden, windswept turf of the Aviva Stadium before the robust Courtney Lawes was damaged by the more compact figure of Rob Kearney. The second half replacement made his tackle, hastily retreating, lunging and throwing his head into whatever was in front of him. It was the instinctive act of a young man prepared to put his body to use, but Lawes’ haste and less than perfect execution ensured that he was concussed when he fell.
Advance a fortnight, though, and the powerhouse will be rewarded for his bravery and dedication – on his 24th birthday no less – with a start, and not in his customary space in the boiler room, but on the blindside flank.
Standing at 6ft 7in, Lawes does not fit your archetypal blindside physique, but head coach Stuart Lancaster has opted to deploy the Northampton Saint from the side of the scrum, encouraging him to wreck French ball carriers and support a phase earlier.
‘If I get shots I have to take them,” Lawes said ahead Saturday. “I have been trusted to come in and play and it’s my first start under Stuart as well so there’s a bit of pressure but you have just got to take it in your stride and do what you normally do for your club.”
If he puts his sizeable stride to proper use, the desired outcome would be that the dynamic forward snaffles an offload or two once the likes of Chris Robshaw, Tom Wood and Manu Tuilagi have had their short bursts. After all, a rampaging Lawes tearing into France’s secondary phase would be more frightening than if he were coming into the third or fourth phase after being tied up in the centre of the scrum.
More important than this, though, will be freeing up the giant hitter to aim a hit at Louis Picamoles. The French No 8 is a worry, if he repeats the bullocking form shown against Australia in November.
It is Lawes first start on the flank and his first under Lancaster and both men are demonstrating demonstrable faith in each other. After all, there is selecting starters to play whenever circumstance dictates and then there is making moves and changes on a whim. If the latter were the case, the painful coincidence would be that this is a foolhardy move against those poster boys of foolhardy positional switches, the French.
France have changed with eight switches. Clinging to the flank on the opposite side, looking to disrupt is the stealthy Yannick Nyanga.
The hope is that Lawes can negate the perpetually moving Toulousain by giving him blunt, hefty, direct problems, as well as smacking Picamoles on the other side of the ball. We all know that Lawes is quick of the mark and thumps like schoolyard bully – poor Morgan Parra can attest to this having been unwittingly caught by an advancing Lawes in the 2009’s Challenge Cup Final – but if Nyanga tangles with him there is a chance that Ben Youngs can slip past or Robshaw and Wood can slow ball down.
Despite his ever-improving levels of fitness, Lawes is unlikely to be used for 80 minutes. Saints rarely throw him on for a full stint and when they do it is for the big, gruelling, slogs against the Aviva Premiership’s ugliest packs or the Heineken Cup’s most grizzled units. This England team wants to play with verve, or at the very least sucker punch the French, and so they will want Lawes to burn brightly but possibly extinguish himself in doing so.
The mammoth option is the answer to a problem that Lancaster has himself invented. The belief is that he can unsettle the French back row and possibly waylay their most explosive options. It is a tough ask, but with Haskell on the bench Lancaster can afford to unleash the exocet on the blindside.