Courtney Lawes: The man who never gave up now vital for England
England face South Africa in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final on Saturday in Yokohama (9am kick-off)
By Michael Cantillon in Tokyo
Last Updated: 30/10/19 4:45pm
England second-row Courtney Lawes chats exclusively to Sky Sports ahead of Saturday's Rugby World Cup final with South Africa in Japan…
"It's hard to beat a person who never gives up" - Babe Ruth, MLB hall of famer.
As one of just three members of the current England squad to have been part of both the nation's ill-famed 2011 World Cup quarter-final exit in New Zealand and their humiliating pool stage exit on home soil four years later, the last thing Courtney Lawes is lacking for ahead of Saturday's Rugby World Cup final is motivation.
Motivation, clearly, will not be a factor left wanting for any of the 46 players involved from England and South Africa in Yokohama - a World Cup final is not just another game.
Though Lawes is outwardly phlegmatic and laid-back at England's Tokyo hotel, there is a laser focus to him, which has manifested into a visceral drive within performances.
"Treat every game like it's your last" - were words spoken by Lawes ahead of last Saturday's 19-7 semi-final victory over double-defending world champions New Zealand. It's a mantra each England player seemed to go with as they systematically dismantled the tournament favourites.
"It's amazing [to be in a World Cup final] and it's something I don't want to let go of in my head," Lawes told Sky Sports on Tuesday.
"It's something we'll all enjoy this week, and then we'll go out and play for our lives.
"And enjoy ourselves while doing it. The feeling you get playing with this team is just fantastic."
Magnificent in last week's win over the All Blacks, Lawes, still just 30, has had far from a straightforward path to his present position of starting second-row under Eddie Jones.
In the Australian's four-year, 49-Test stint as head coach, Lawes has featured 38 times - only four men have played more: George Ford (47), Owen Farrell (43), Ben Youngs (42), Jamie George (41). But just 20 of those Test appearances have been as a starting lock.
A further six starts have come at blindside flanker, seven caps off the bench as a replacement second-row and five more caps as a replacement back-row.
It's a course of match-day action Lawes has experienced throughout his career. Chopped and changed, rotated in and out. Versatility perhaps to the detriment of one of the most consistently powerful forwards in the Premiership.
Sat on 80 caps for his country already, only nine men have ever played more for England in history, and just two in the current squad: Dan Cole, Youngs (both 94).
Outside of scrum-half Danny Care within the top 10, however, Lawes has considerably less starts than the rest: 55 from 80. On average, each of the rest of the top 10 have started 26 more times than the Northampton Saint.
Such fluctuation saw Lawes miss out on British & Irish Lions selection in 2013 to Australia, while on the 2017 tour to New Zealand he was overlooked for the first Test entirely, before coming off the bench in the remaining two. And that despite performing outstandingly in the build-up.
Even at this World Cup, Lawes had to make do with the well-versed role of impact sub in England's most important Test of Pool C against Argentina.
Yet, in the face of seemingly repeated setbacks and recurring positional transitions between second row and flanker, Lawes has never gone away. And nor has his power or lineout ability.
Picked to start alongside Maro Itoje in England's quarter-final win over Australia in Oita, Lawes performed well but many tipped George Kruis to be brought back in as a lineout specialist ahead of facing New Zealand.
Lawes and Itoje remained in situ and are now un-droppable after a pack performance which arguably ranks as England's greatest of all-time.
"It was a great game to be a part of - I really enjoyed it," Lawes says.
"We're not doing anything special, nothing crazy, we're just doing the basics well and playing for each other.
"It goes to show with the results we're getting that we've got a good team.
"It's obviously a great achievement, but it's not what we came here to do.
"We want to win, and we want to win the World Cup. After Saturday's game, I'll be able to tell you how it feels to achieve what you want to achieve, or not."
Saturday's striking semi-final partnership of Lawes and Itoje within the pack's engine room was, remarkably, just the fourth occasion the two forwards have started together within their preferred roles.
The early part of Itoje's career saw the Saracens man feature at blindside flanker throughout much of 2017, while Lawes filled the six shirt during much of 2018.
It wasn't until November 2018 against Australia at Twickenham that Itoje and Lawes first started in the second row together - almost three years after Itoje's Test debut - while they did not feature again there until England's opening World Cup clash with Tonga.
Saturday's victory was surely the point at which this lock pairing has been cemented into Jones' thinking though. The duo comprehensively outplayed All Black counterparts Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock - regarded by many as the best partnership in the history of the sport.
Itoje was man of the match, with Lawes a central figure too as he thundered into tackles and carries, conceded no penalties, was superb at restarts and had two key involvements in the lead-up to Manu Tuilagi's early try - offloading and carrying.
The lineout, talked up as a set-piece of potential weakness, thrived with Itoje and Lawes in commanding form. Lawes claimed the first in the opening seconds and made the first steal of the game too on 17 minutes within the England 22 - it visibly settled Jones' charges and rocked the All Blacks.
"I've played a lot of Tests with him [Itoje], but most of the time I've been playing six.
"He's an incredibly talented player, and the good thing is we're very different players, so we can complement each other in that regard.
"I know that Eddie [Jones] likes a nice physical pack, and that is certainly something I can bring to the party and something I pride myself on.
"We did have a good game, our discipline was good, which is brilliant and means you can push on from there, but I still think we've got more to give and had a couple of tries that we left out there as well.
"If you want someone who is going to be really excited about things, I'm probably not the person to talk to.
"It is a life's work but it's not over yet. Next week, if we do the job, I might have a different answer but right now, I feel calm, want to prepare well and not get ahead of ourselves. And that's what we're doing.
"The response we get from home is unbelievable, and that's amazing, but it's important we don't get carried away with it.
"We haven't won the World Cup yet, we still have a massive game against a very tough team. That's the focus."
Lawes' understated, focused mode is ideal for the challenge which awaits. Physicality and the set-piece are sure to be prime areas of importance again against a monstrous Springbok pack.
Having never given up in his quest to start for England in the second row, the burning question now is whether they can reach the heights of their semi-final display again.