Rugby: England groom lock for World Cup pack

By Chris Hewett

Joe Launchbury. Photo / Getty Images
Joe Launchbury. Photo / Getty Images

Joe Launchbury thinks failing to make the cut for last summer's British and Irish Lions tour of Australia did him a favour.

"Graham Rowntree [England's forwards coach and a member of the Lions back-room staff] took me aside one day," he recalls, "and told me: 'Believe me, Joe, it will be better for you as a player - and probably as a person - if you miss this one.' I'm sure he was right.

"I'd spent the previous few months on the steepest learning curve and, after discovering so much about myself, as well as about rugby ... well, there's only so much you can pack into a single season.

"The tour wasn't even in my mind," he adds. "If someone had approached me the previous September and mentioned the Lions, I'd have assumed they were talking to someone standing behind me."

That said, it is hard to think of him missing the next Lions adventure, in New Zealand in 2017 or the one after that, in South Africa in 2021.

If things pan out the way Rowntree and his fellow red-rose strategists intend, he will be the next Alun Wyn Jones figure to emerge in these islands. Maybe even the next Martin Johnson. The England hierarchy genuinely believe he has it in him to reach those towering heights.

The coaches are building their 2015 World Cup pack around the Devon-born and Sussex-raised forward who made his international debut off the bench against Fiji this time last year and has barely put a foot wrong, with the obvious exception of a quiet game against Wales in Cardiff last March - something for which he can be excused, given that every member of that England side bar captain Chris Robshaw had a rough one that day. Not even Johnson or Simon Shaw, the finest front jumping locks of the modern red rose era, were playing test rugby with such potency and authority at the age of 22.

Last week's victory over Australia at Twickenham shone a fascinating sidelight on the thinking of national head coach Stuart Lancaster and his colleagues as they continue to piece together a forward unit capable of staring down the All Blacks, Springboks, French and Welsh in a little under two years.

Launchbury lasted 75 minutes before being replaced by Bath lock Dave Attwood and had played a tighter, more direct and significantly more physical game than anything seen hitherto.

It was precisely what Lancaster had asked of him and by delivering, he announced himself as the new fixed point in the England pack - the unit's essential structural component. Launchbury the launch pad, if you like.

As long ago as 2010, when Johnson was managing the England team, the Bristolian was identified as a potential chief stoker of the boilerhouse fires. After three fallow years, caused in part by a long suspension, he is back in the selection mix. The coaches see Launchbury as the more athletic option - the engine-room operator with the biggest engine.

"My mindset has changed, definitely," he says. "A year ago, I was still, to a certain degree, a second row forward with a back rower's mentality. Now, I think the days of flitting around between lock and blindside flanker and changing my game accordingly are over. The England coaches have made it clear that they want me to concentrate on specific things and that's how I'm channelling my mind.

Launchbury has bulked up substantially. He has also adopted the second-rowers code of omerta: the tougher and rougher the rugby, the less he sees and the less he hears.

At the beginning of the final quarter against the Wallabies, the 6ft 7in Wasps player found himself fighting for turnover ball at an Australian ruck. Off his feet in a prone position, Launchbury was dealt to by his opposite number, the massive Sitaleki Timani, who lined up a stationary player and smashed into him horizontally at considerable velocity. It was precisely this kind of assault, by fearsome Springbok enforcer Bakkies Botha, that put Wales prop Adam Jones in a Pretoria hospital a little over four years ago. Such incidents are growing more frequent. If the International Rugby Board's legislators were up to speed they would outlaw it.

Launchbury is relaxed about it.

"I think I was probably fair game," he says. "I was trying to be the jackal at the tackle, but when you're 6 feet 7 inches, it's difficult to get your body into the optimum position.

"I wasn't on my feet, I was probably on the wrong side of the ruck and I was almost certainly making a nuisance of myself as far as the Wallabies were concerned. I got what was coming to me."

There speaks a true lock forward, the kind Johnson would have recognised and respected.

- The Independent

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