One of the great things about rugby is the central role of the unsung hero. You know the guy, he’s in every successful team, smashing into rucks, carrying the ball up and making sure the set-piece is running like clockwork.
In the Welsh team one of the players who rarely gets the plaudits but is the key reason players like Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips get over the gain-line is Luke Charteris, the Dragons lock who made a huge breakthrough in this World Cup. When he was picked ahead of Bradley Davies for the opening game against South Africa, a few eyebrows were raised back home but not in the squad, where he is highly regarded, especially by head coach Warren Gatland.
So is Charteris bothered about his current graft-without-glory role? “What the management ask from the front five is for us to make our tackles and hit as many rucks as you can,” he tells me in Wellington. “We’re the workhorses if you like, but that’s why we have a mobile and fit front five, to play the style of game we want.
“The idea is if we can do all of that work it frees up guys like Tobes (Faletau) to get their hands on the ball and cause some damage. I haven’t got the skills or gas to be in the backs so you have to make the best of what you’ve got. It’s a team game. It doesn’t matter who gets over the whitewash as long as we get the win.”
Ankle, elbow and knee problems restricted Charteris to 25 caps in seven years before this World Cup, but he might have doubled that tally if he had stayed fit because Gatland has selected him whenever he’s been injury-free. “Any professional player is up and down with injuries – it’s a fact of life so you can’t let it get you down,” he says. “I got caps back in 2004, but last season was the first time I had really put together a whole season of being fit – I managed to get my body in a good place and get my confidence back.
“All you can do is try to stay fit and put in the performances. If that means you get selected then happy days. All I need to focus on now is keeping that spot in the Wales team. “Warren has been here for a few years now and we all know what is expected from us, what we have to do to get in the team. Pulling on the Welsh jersey is massive for me, such an honour, and it brings it home to you when you see the amazing support we’ve had in New Zealand.”
When the going got really tough for Wales in their second pool match against Samoa, it was Alun Wyn Jones, not Charteris, who was taken off for Davies late on. The Dragon’s line speed and defensive abilities had been key to keeping the Samoans at bay. He was the first person into the tackle, leading the line time and again. He now cuts a much more powerful figure than the ‘beanpole’ who made his Wales debut in 2004. He’s been 6ft 9in since his teens, but in recent years he has bulked up to 19st 4lb.
One of Wales’ biggest problems in recent years has been their failure to perform at the lineout. That all changed at the World Cup, when Charteris helped them match the usually supreme South Africans. “Our aim was to control the ball and control territory. We did that but had two lapses in concentration and a team of that quality will punish you,” he says of the 17-16 defeat. “We’ve put a lot of work into the lineout and it’s paying off. Huw Bennett’s throwing in was awesome and the unit went well.”
Jones calls the lineout but Charteris takes over if he goes off. “Whether Alun Wyn is calling or I am it doesn’t matter – it’s something we’ve both done all of our lives. We help each other out.”
Wales are lucky at the moment because they have a trio of locks that complement each other. All three will play in every big game and the starting two are under extra pressure to perform. “You have one slightly off game and you’re back out of the team – we all know that and appreciate that competition is important to the success of the team,” says Charteris. “Bradley and Alun Wyn are both quality players and it’s great to play alongside them. Off the field I can’t speak highly enough of them as well. We spent so much time as a squad in the summer that the boys are really tight.”
Charteris also enjoys a close and happy relationship with his Dragons team-mates – an important factor in his decision to stay loyal to the Gwent side despite having chances to move to other Welsh regions and the Aviva Premiership.
“Loyalty is very important to me,” he says. “It’s my tenth year at the Dragons and although we haven’t necessarily got the success we wanted, it’s been a really enjoyable time because of the people there. You need to be happy in whatever you do and that is what I have at the Dragons. We’re starting to build a team there now and hopefully we can start pushing higher up the leagues.”
This article appeared in the November 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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