At the start of the season, Courtney Lawes’s prospects of making the British & Irish Lions tour this summer looked even more distant than New Zealand itself. Second row was the best stocked of all the positions and the 28-year-old Saint had fallen behind George Kruis, Maro Itoje and Joe Launchbury in the England lock hierarchy.
Lawes has had more than his share of injuries during his career and when Itoje and Kruis were ruled out of the start of England’s autumn international campaign, the Northampton forward, who had started one match in the 2016 Six Nations and was a replacement on the summer tour to Australia, was given an opportunity. He seized it with such force that when Itoje returned for this year’s championship, the Saracen was picked at blindside flanker.
After the opening game against France, when Louis Picamoles exploited Itoje’s unfamiliarity with packing down on the blindside of scrums, Lawes moved there for the next four matches, although he did not change his jersey number. He was one of England’s standout players in the tournament, no longer the opportunist he was early in his career when he combined eye-catching moments with periods when he was difficult to detect.
“I have come a long way in a year,” says Lawes, whose immediate target is to get Northampton into the top four of the Premiership, starting at Wasps on Sunday, the first of successive matches against the clubs in the current top three. “The Six Nations was tough physically and mentally but I thought I played well. It was great to stay fit for this amount of time and get back to some kind of form.
“There are worse seasons to come into some decent form with the Lions at the end but we will see what happens there. I hope I get a shot but if not it will be a good trip to Argentina [with England]. I am trying not to think about it. It is out of my hands. All I can do is play well for Saints.”
It has been a career-defining season for the 6ft 7in Londoner, who before the start of it was in danger of falling into the category of players who while reaching the top had not quite fulfilled their potential. “I am working a lot harder now, being a lot more professional than in previous years in terms of getting more physio, keeping on top of niggles and working harder in the gym to protect my body as best I can,” he says. “It came from me because I was tired of being injured and not getting to where I thought I could.
“I needed to make a change to stay in the mix with England and, luckily, I have been able to do it. Being able to stay fit has made the difference. It’s the most rugby I’ve had in probably my entire career. The little nuances you get out of games make a big difference.”
Lawes showed his versatility during the Six Nations by operating in the back row in the scrums, an asset that adds to his value for the Lions. “Maro is a bit better scrummager than me and I am more used to playing at six than he is so it made sense to put me at flanker and him in the second row,” he says. “It did not change my role, apart from the scrum, because six, five and four are the same thing these days.
“I have been working on my ball-carrying, which is not easy when you are not the biggest or strongest guy, and I thought I did pretty well in the Six Nations. Billy Vunipola is 140kg and pretty quick whereas I am a lanky 115kg second row. I had been a good carrier previously, but when you are injured time and again you go away from things towards what you have always been strong at, which with me is defence.
“Eddie [Jones, the England coach] is always telling me to eat because he wants me to keep my weight on. We work well together: he is a chilled guy. It was a disappointing end to the Six Nations in Dublin and the end of our long winning run, but that was always going to come at some point. We knew we had stuff to improve on anyway and it will refocus us. I know there is loads more to come from me.”
Lawes’s second-row partner at Northampton, Christian Day, has led the players’ charge against Premiership Rugby’s plan to run the domestic season for 10 months from 2020, with Test players then having tours, not ruling out a strike call. “He is a person who says what he feels and I have loads of respect for him,” Lawes says. “Eleven months of rugby seems daunting to me. I have not thought about it too much but I am sure if it is going to be bad for players, it won’t happen.”