Courtney Lawes’ tour de force made Leinster sweat and proved he is still England’s most important man

To make a meaningful bid for victory in Croke Park, or even to make Leinster sweat, it always felt like Northampton Saints needed a tour de force from Courtney Lawes. Luckily for them, such appearances have been fairly regular for the past two years.

That Saints braved a terrible first quarter to come within three points of their hosts and ultimately trail 20-17 was testament to a number of factors. They are a resilient, well-coached team who are confident in their approach. Instead of panicking after being 20-3 down, Northampton remained calm and steadily took on Leinster.

Starters Juarno Augustus, Fraser Dingwall and Tommy Freeman settled in and asserted themselves. Substitutes Elliot Millar Mills, Angus Scott-Young and Tom James added energy from the bench. And Lawes produced another colossal performance, repeatedly dragging the momentum of the game to his team.

Northampton looked terribly timid for the first 32 minutes. Fearful handling errors and frantic decision-making paralyzed them. After a Ross Byrne penalty on the half hour, Northampton chased Finn Smith’s restart too early. Saints were punished for the ensuing scrum. That allowed Leinster, with a 15-0 lead, to go into the opposition 22nd and push for a scoreline that would certainly have killed the match.

Their powerful but complicated phase play saw Saints crack before Lawes struck, earning Mathieu Raynal a break penalty and his side finally gaining a foothold. One of the most valuable skills in the modern game, Jackalling is the latest asset Lawes has added to his inventory.

His remarkable career was one of constant evolution. He emerged as a dynamic athlete who could jump into the lineout and tackle destructively before working on his footwork to become an effective ball carrier and ultimately an elite breakdown catcher.

Lawes has worked on his footwork to become a good ball carrierLawes has worked on his footwork to become a good ball carrier

Lawes has worked on his footwork to become a good ball carrier – Getty Images/Brendan Moran

Lawes’ status is such that you can chart the latter two on British and Irish Lions tours. In the second and third Tests of 2017, he cut sharp angles to pierce New Zealand’s defensive line.

Four years later, Lawes started all three matches against the Springboks and his jackalling featured a claustrophobic sequence. Andy Farrell was in the crowd on Saturday. He must have wondered how the 2025 Lions could accommodate Lawes, who plans to be available for the trip to Australia despite his move to Brive this summer. What else can the veteran improve?

There were flashes of class throughout Saturday afternoon. Lawes recorded a second turnover early in the final quarter, following Byrne’s elemental miss from the tee. Moments earlier, Northampton had scored through George Hendy. These three events in quick succession strengthened Northampton’s belief and put jitters in Leinster’s game.

With seven minutes to go, Lawes rose to collect a lineout and scored a penalty by dummying a pass from the top of his jump. Several Leinster forwards were foxed and crawled offside. Lawes’ cerebral side can be underestimated, but he has led strategy meetings for a long time and this was a fun game as the pressure continued to build. Soon Tom Seabrook was in the corner.

Raynal’s overall assessment of the glitch – in short, he’s allowing a match – means it’s far better to ask for forgiveness than permission. This could spook English teams, as Premiership officials have a reputation for wanting fast, clean rucks. Lawes will have known Raynal’s habits during the World Cup quarter-final against Fiji six months ago, when he and Maro Itoje rolled up their sleeves for a fierce showdown.

Lawes vs FijiLawes vs Fiji

Lawes rolled up his sleeves against Fiji for a fierce defeat battle – Getty Images/Michael Steele

On Saturday, in the final five minutes, Leinster tried to turn back the clock with a lengthy passage of phase play around the Saints 22. Lawes was ruthless, tracking the ball and digging into at least four or five rucks. He reached over lying bodies, hoping to accentuate the attackers as they dived to their feet. Leinster looked shocked. They became narrow and scrappy, eventually coughing up possession.

Northampton countered and almost cleared out a faltering defense. A winning effort would have sparked debate about Saints’ greatest ever wins. Lawes is certainly one of the club’s best ever players. Steve Borthwick and Felix Jones, two more spectators in Croke Park, would probably testify that he is still the most accomplished operator in England. Ben Earl has had a fantastic year, yet Lawes has been bubbling in the ‘world class’ category since England’s 2022 tour to Australia. When it comes to consistent excellence and influence, he is second to none. The Leinster game has shown unequivocally that international retirement has not compromised his ability to link up with opponents like Caelan Doris.

Lawes is spoken of with genuine reverence

Last week, during an appearance on ‘For the Love of Rugby’, a podcast fronted by Dan Cole and Ben Youngs, Lawes discussed his development in a casual but insightful tone. Cole described him as “a complete back rower” who “does everything to a nine-out-of-10 standard”. Youngs added that Lawes now possesses four “points of difference” – his line-out jumping, his tackling, his carrying and his jackalling – while exuding the aura of a special leader. The co-hosts, fellow British centurions, both spoke with genuine reverence.

Interestingly, Eddie Jones was cited as the impetus for Lawes to improve in the carry stakes, with the latter acknowledging he had been “pretty one-dimensional for a few years”. A simple drill, in which Lawes collected passes while running and stepped past a post, helped this progression. As for jackalling, Lawes explained that squats and other lifting exercises have boosted confidence while making him strong enough to withstand clearers and avoid knee injuries.

“You learn that you can do it [improve] anything, really, as long as you have the qualities to do it,” Lawes said, perhaps downplaying both his talent and what has been a hugely impressive process of reinvention.

The rest of the interview, spread over two episodes, covered different topics. It discussed Lawes’ transition from lightweight lock to blindside flanker, as well as contract negotiations and how players in their mid-30s handle their bodies. Lawes picked two colleagues for an imaginative back row, landing on Samu Manoa and Ben Earl and admitting he was excited about the prospect. Intriguingly, there was a short section on Ollie Chessum. Lawes suggested the Leicester Tiger, 12 years his junior, has a similar athlete profile and could end up in the back row.

Lawes retired from internationals after his phenomenal World Cup, a tournament in which Borthwick placed significant shares in older professionals such as Cole and Joe Marler. Replacing Lawes is more difficult because of the number of bases he has covered for England. On ‘For the Love of Rugby’, Lawes himself reiterated the importance of fielding three polished lineout jumpers in a pack. Borthwick blooded Ethan Roots at the start of the Six Nations and then handed the No. 6 jersey to Chessum, who started behind a closing partnership of Itoje and George Martin. The latter trio was integral to a compelling victory over Ireland.

Lawes plays for England against South AfricaLawes plays for England against South Africa

Lawes retired from England after last year’s World Cup – PA/David Davies

Longer term, candidates like Chandler Cunningham-South and Ted Hill will enter the fray. However, if they want to enjoy a long Test career, they will need to hone several areas, as Lawes has done. Cunningham-South, for example, is a bopping carrier who focuses on improvements in the lineout.

Northampton will be eager to send Lawes away with a Premiership title. They will continue to improve as a team, especially as their backs mature. Sam Vesty, their head coach, gave an interview to TNT Sports during the error-strewn first half on Saturday. He seemed calm and simply said that the team would work it out among themselves. The second period proved Vesty right. And yet the Saints will also know that with Lawes, Lewis Ludlam and Alex Moon all leaving, they are losing valuable personnel. This season is a big opportunity for silverware.

“Why stop here?” was the question Lawes asked himself when he added carry and yak to his arsenal. “I want to try to become one of the best players in the world and leave a legacy.”

Whether or not he lifts a trophy to end his time at Northampton, Lawes has certainly achieved that. There was an element of fortune in the way his body held up, but he earned that luck. Lawes heads to Brive as a source of inspiration for every player – young and old – who wonders what is possible if they want to improve their game.

Leave a Comment