The Lion is renowned for big hits but it’s his ability to develop other facets of his game that has allowed him to stay a step ahead
Courtney Lawes on tackles and training
How to describe Courtney Lawes in three words? “Relaxed, self-assured, father – I love being a dad,” comes the response from the man himself on the Zoom screen.
When it’s put to him that none of those words would likely be used if opposition fly-halves were asked the same question, he chuckles.
The second-row, whether playing for Northampton Saints, England or the British & Irish Lions, is known for his relentless nature in defence, with those wearing the No 10 jersey often on the receiving end.
There are YouTube videos dedicated to his tackles, collections of his greatest ‘hits’.
These few snippets of commentary highlight how big an impression Lawes can make as a tackler…
“What a tackle from Courtney Lawes. He just lined him up and cut him in half.”
“That is a monstrous hit.”
“He’s the nemesis of every fly-half.”
“When you clash with Courtney Lawes, you’re going to come off second best.”
“Lawes doing what he does best.”
Owen Farrell, Charlie Hodgson, Ruaridh Jackson, Jules Plisson and Phil Godman are among those shown feeling the force of Lawes’s shoulder. Even the more sizeable frame of former France centre Mathieu Bastareaud gets driven back.
These days Lawes is less likely to burst out of the line to make those types of spot tackles. He’s still putting that shoulder to work but more as part of the defensive line so as not to leave his team exposed to the running threat of modern stand-offs.
“The game has really changed now and it’s gone away from tens being distributors like Ronan O’Gara, (Charlie) Hodgson,” says Lawes. “Then you had the opportunity to go and get tens, to put pressure on them. Nowadays it’s very different.
“Most tens are pretty sharp, they snipe and stuff, so if you rush out of the line you could be putting your team in a difficult place. So I don’t really do that kind of stuff any more.
“How rugby is being played at the minute, you can still put pressure on but do it within the framework in defence. I’m still really effective in that system; of course, I don’t get the highlight-reel hits that I used to but they’re good tackles. I still get a lot of big hits, it just goes under the radar a bit because it’s not what people are used to seeing.
“I think one of the reasons I’ve been picked by Warren Gatland (for the Lions), one of the reasons Eddie Jones has me in the (England) team, and Saints as well, is that I make those good shots. They’re often on bigger men, too. They’re not as spectacular but they’re just as effective.”
The clampdown on head-high tackles has been a hot topic over the past year, with red cards becoming far more common. Lawes is known for tackling hard, not high, but even so the zero-tolerance approach from officials must have given him pause for thought. Actually, no.
“I don’t really worry about it too much. I’ve always been a good tackler technique-wise. I’ve only committed one high tackle in my whole career and that was in my first game for Saints when I was 18.
“My body height is generally really good, so I don’t worry about that stuff too much. I have it in the back of my mind – if someone half trips, they could end up somewhere they shouldn’t be and it could be a red card – so you have to be extra careful. But I don’t see any benefit in changing my technique.”
For all the focus on his impact without the ball, it can be easy to overlook what he does with it. As well as being an effective lineout jumper – he won more lineouts (18) than any other Lions player on the 2017 tour and that includes four steals – he’s developed his carrying game and is dexterous too.
Chris Boyd’s arrival at Franklin’s Gardens and the Kiwi coach’s focus on a more expansive style will have enhanced his mindset in attack too. So does Lawes think his creative skills are undervalued?
“Maybe a little. People expect that thing (tackling) from me, it’s what I’m known for, and the other things I do around the pitch are not highlighted as much. But as long as I bring what I can for the team in that side of things, if people appreciate it or not, the ones who really need to know are the ones who benefit from it.
“Nowadays, there is more focus on ball-carrying and stuff like that. I want to get the team over the gain-line, to get quick ball every time, and those are my jobs as part of the team. Getting little tips away and moving the ball, I’m working hard to improve that side of things.
“On the pitch, I want to improve every session, to work on what I’m not so good at and to get better at strengths. I think that’s why I’ve stuck around for such a long time internationally, because I want to continue to improve.”
Another reason for that longevity – he’s been playing for Saints since 2007 and England since 2009 – is that he’s learnt how to manage his body. He knows what he needs to maintain his optimum weight, the calorie intake and gym work required.
Here’s an example on that front: with Covid protocols meaning there was no room service available in England’s Six Nations camp, he took a small electric hob with him so he could make his own omelettes of an evening.
As for training, he recognises that he cannot go full-out in every session and still deliver on match day. In fact, he thinks rugby could benefit from time parameters on contact training as they have in the NFL, particularly given the growing focus on brain injuries and the head impacts outside of matches.
“Now I’m a bit older, I know myself and what I need. I know I have to be aware of what team-mates need from me in training – I can’t not train all week, then rock up on game day – but it’s about getting the balance between that and what I need to perform on the weekend.
“It’s tough enough to put your body on the line every weekend, you don’t need to do it all week as well. It’s a healthy balance; you do need reps and to know your role for the weekend, but you also have to be right to start come game day.
“I do think it could be a good idea to have some legislation around contact, to have a bit more value placed on players and their bodies, especially when you can pick up potential head knocks. There is a need to do contact in training but it would probably be a good idea to have a limit on it.”
There will undoubtedly be plenty of contact in the Lions 2021 series against South Africa. Lawes is familiar with the Boks – he’s played them four times in his career, most recently in the 2019 World Cup final – and knows if the tourists’ pack cannot match the world champions’ physicality they will struggle to win a first series there since 1997.
Despite more than a decade on the Test stage, this is Lawes’s first trip to South Africa. The pandemic also means that his family haven’t been able to fly south to watch the matches. Lawes and wife Jessica have four children – Nell, seven, Teddy, six, and three-year-old twin boys Otto and Hugo – and the eldest two have started playing rugby at their local club, Long Buckby.
“Both are very athletic – my wife is athletic too. Nell is one of the quicker people on the team, playing with boys, and Teddy is a bit taller than anybody else and fast. They’re only doing tag but the main thing is they’re enjoying it.”
With such a busy household, were there any discussions over whether or not he should spend a couple of months away with the Lions? “Jessica is amazing. She’s given me no choice, ‘You’re going on tour’. She’ll get on with it because that’s what she does. My mum and dad live in Northampton so they can help and her mum and dad are very supportive, so we’ll make it work.”
For all his laid-back nature and ready smile off the pitch, there’s a steely drive in terms of his goals on it. The 32-year-old set off for South Africa focused on making a big impression in the tour matches to put himself in the selection frame for the Test XV having won two caps off the bench in New Zealand in 2017.
“Last time the goal was to make it as a Test starter and I still think I was unlucky not to get that considering the form I was in and how I was playing, but that’s how it goes. I was on the bench (for two Tests) and did what I could from there.
“Whatever team I play for, whoever is in front of me, I want to go for a start. I’m not going to participate, I want to compete and want to be in the mix.”
Well, he’s achieved that goal with selection at blindside for the first Test against the Springboks in Cape Town – and he’ll be sure to make an impact with and without the ball.
This article originally appeared in Rugby World’s July 2021 edition.
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