Courtney Lawes exclusive: 'This is the tightest England group I have been involved with'

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England Captain Courtney Lawes leads their side into the dressing room prior to the Autumn Nations Series match between England and South Africa at Twickenham Stadium on November 20, 2021 in London, England. - GETTY IMAGES
England Captain Courtney Lawes leads their side into the dressing room prior to the Autumn Nations Series match between England and South Africa at Twickenham Stadium on November 20, 2021 in London, England. - GETTY IMAGES

Fame does not sit comfortably on the shoulders of Courtney Lawes. It was only when the Northampton Saints forward returned home to family and club training this week that the honour of captaining England twice during the side’s successful autumn campaign finally sunk in.

“I guess it just dawned on me when I came back and people started calling me skipper,” says Lawes, who captained England for the first time in the victories against Tonga and South Africa, in the absence of Owen Farrell.

“I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I guess so.’ It is a pretty cool thing to be able to say.

“My two oldest children, Nell is eight and Teddy who is six, had not really been that bothered about rugby before, but they were able to come and watch me at Twickenham for the first time in a long time.

“And with the capacity crowd back, I think they realised for the first time that Daddy didn’t just play for a local club down the road on a Sunday morning, and afterwards Teddy started telling me the score and stuff.

“It’s obviously a really big honour, but you don’t really appreciate it until you get a chance to captain the side. It is afterwards when you reflect that it is the highest representative [honour] for your country in that sport.

“I was just kind of happy to be part of the team, and I was very proud to be able to skipper that group of lads in particular.”

His only memento is an ornamental shield that was presented by the Tongan officials to the Rugby Football Union before the 69-3 victory, which Lawes was allowed to keep.

What he treasures the most, however, is the extent to which Eddie Jones’s new-look squad were able to bond over the past month.

Since making his debut against Australia in 2009, the 32-year-old, who finished the autumn campaign with 90 England caps, says it is the tightest squad he has experienced.

Courtney Lawes of England charges upfield during the Cook Cup Test match between the Australian Wallabies and England at the Subiaco Oval on June 12, 2010 in Perth, Australia. - GETTY IMAGES
Courtney Lawes of England charges upfield during the Cook Cup Test match between the Australian Wallabies and England at the Subiaco Oval on June 12, 2010 in Perth, Australia. - GETTY IMAGES

“We said at the start of camp that if we want to be a team that’s going to win stuff, then we have to have everybody feeling comfortable and feeling like they’re a part of the team – and that everyone would contribute massively, even if you don’t get to play at the weekend. And the boys out there play for everyone, not just each other,” says Lawes, who returns to club action at Bristol on Friday night.

“We’ve only just started. We’ve only been together as a proper group for a month. But we have certainly come on leaps and bounds and it feels very tight-knit. Obviously we haven’t come under much pressure in that we haven’t lost yet, so we are going to go through tests, but I think we have made a very good start.

“I am sure if the boys keep buying into it and really make the effort, then we can go a long way.”

Plenty of previous England squads, including under Jones, have sought a club mentality in the national squad, so why does this feel different? “I suppose one of the big differences is we’ve got so many young lads in now, who are fresh and have not played a lot of international rugby and not been with the team much,” he adds. “It gives you an opportunity to really shape the team culture.

“I think as a leadership group, we’ve tried our best to share that culture around each other and be a tight-knit team.

“Because everyone wants to be part of it, then that has made a big difference. Obviously you’re going to like some people more than others, but eventually enjoying everybody’s company is how you really become a team and that when the pressure comes, gets tighter rather than splintering.”

The bonding over the past month included going out for dinners together, visiting a private cinema as well as many games of pool, chess and cards.

Lawes says the shift to a player-led culture has been the key. “It really feels like we have been given a clean sheet,” he says.

“The last camp was definitely very different to anything I’ve been under with Eddie.

“We’ve really been asked to take charge of the team culture and kind of make it our own.

“When you do that, it’s just more kind of genuine, because you work at it yourselves.

“Obviously, we’ve got to speed up the process because we’re not there for long, but it’s a genuine team culture when you can bring it all together yourselves and the leadership group is setting an example.

“I think it showed how tight we were out there (in the second half against South Africa). When we came under the pressure, we didn’t shy away from it. We just got on with the next job.

“You know, people make mistakes, then, you know, again, just get on with it, no worries.”

Courtney Lawes of England leads their team through the guard of honor following the Autumn Nations Series match between England and Tonga at Twickenham Stadium on November 06, 2021 in London, England. - GETTY IMAGES
Courtney Lawes of England leads their team through the guard of honor following the Autumn Nations Series match between England and Tonga at Twickenham Stadium on November 06, 2021 in London, England. - GETTY IMAGES

Lawes, only the second person of colour to captain the England side since Jason Robinson in 2004, is also proud of the diverse make-up of the squad. Given the racism scandal that has engulfed cricket, he hopes that the make-up of the England rugby squad can act as an inspiration for all sections of society.

“[I am proud] of the diversity of the group in terms of everything, not just colour or whatever, but background – even kind of nationalities in some cases, even though we’re obviously all under England.

“It’s good for people to be able to see all sorts of different people come together and be part of one bigger thing. And be able to actually buy in and enjoy each other’s company and be good friends. Even though you come from such different places.”

With Farrell having just undergone surgery for an ankle injury that ruled him out of the Springboks match, Lawes could find himself leading England into the start of the Six Nations Championship.

“I’ll be very happy to just do my part to be honest, and if Eddie thinks that I am the best person to lead then I will be happy to do that,” he says. “We have a good bit of rugby to do, and first and foremost I have to prove myself, But if I do get the opportunity to come back in, then I’d be very much looking forward to getting back with the boys and trying to pick up where we left off.”

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