Asked to provide a brief synopsis of his injury history, Northampton and England lock Courtney Lawes takes a deep breath. “It’s a long list: I’ve had a stress fracture [to the shin], five torn medial ligaments which were about six weeks each, shoulders, bad ankles, ankle operations, bits of bone in both ankles removed.”
He missed a few too. There is also a recurring groin problem and a handful of concussions, which come as standard these days. If you want to know why it has taken Lawes the best part of a decade to deliver on the world-class potential first spoken about by Martin Johnson in 2010 then here is your answer.
The 28-year-old was outstanding in this year’s Six Nations, making 70 tackles and 48 carries. His previous highest marks in seven years of playing in the tournament were 38 and 32. There is no great mystery as to why he is peaking this season. “Honestly, it is just being able to stay fit,” Lawes said. “It’s the most rugby I’ve had in probably my entire career. The little nuances you get out of games makes a big difference to repeatedly play and get better every game.
“I’ve come a long way in a year. It’s great just to be able to get back to some kind of form and stay fit for this amount of time.”
A week’s holiday in Dubai is just the tonic Lawes needed post-Six Nations as he prepares to face Joe Launchbury, his Six Nations second-row partner, in Northampton’s clash against Wasps tomorrow in what could be viewed as a Lions shoot-out.
Remaining injury-free is a tricky art dependent on a huge degree of luck. Lawes is far more proactive in his preparation and has increased his rehabilitation and gym work. “I was tired of being injured and not getting to the kind of potential I thought I could,” Lawes said. “I needed to make a change, especially if I wanted to stay in the mixer for England.”
It is also why there is so much concern and consternation at the changes to the global calendar which would potentially entail an 11-month season for England internationals starting in the 2019/2020 season. Even with in-built rest periods, any proper form of pre-season would be eliminated and Lawes added his voice to that of fellow England internationals George Ford, Chris Robshaw and Joe Marler in opposing the plans.
“It’s going to be incredibly hard if we’re playing 11 months a year,” Lawes said. “We probably won’t get a pre-season at all. Pre-season is a very important time and you can make a lot of headway. Normally, the better your pre-season, the better season you have. I do think it’s very important to get your body in the right shape it needs to be in.
“I don’t want to say anything, but 11 months of rugby with one month off seems to daunting to me. I don’t know how that would play out. Maybe we could get through that easy. Maybe we couldn’t. It seems like a lot.”
Christian Day, Lawes’ second-row partner at Northampton, has already raised the possibility of strike action. That is a weapon that players’ unions in the NBA and NFL have used effectively before, but has never truly been employed in English sport. “Christian will lead the charge if he feels it needs leading,” Lawes said. “I have got loads of respect for him and fair play to him for stepping up and saying what he really thinks.
“Nobody wants to be pushed around. Nobody wants to made to do something that’s not good for them. I have not thought about it too much but I am sure that if it is going to be bad for the players then it won’t happen.”
Lawes’ defensive and line-out work have always been excellent. His biggest improvement has been in his carrying as he helped to fill the void left by the absence of the Vunipola brothers. That challenge – set by Eddie Jones, the England head coach, who also constantly nags Lawes to eat more to keep his weight on – was as much mental as it was physical.
“It is more about getting the courage to do it,” Lawes said. “Ball-carrying is not easy, especially when you are not the biggest, strongest guy. It is easier for Billy, a big guy, 140kg and still pretty quick; it is probably pretty easy for him to carry but when you are a lanky, 115kg second row it is maybe as not as easy.”
While happy with his form, which he hopes will put him in the Lions reckoning, he maintains there is still far more to come. “I thought I played well during the Six Nations but nowhere near as well as I could have,” Lawes said. “Give me another six months and I will be hopefully be where I want to be.”