Courtney Lawes insist 'work needs to be done' ahead of England return

‘It’s tough to see British rugby struggling… a lot of players are leaving the Prem’: England veteran Courtney Lawes sympathises with Wales stars in contract dispute, and insists there’s ‘a lot of work to be done’ to grow the sport

  • Courtney Lawes had admitted there is still ‘work to be done’ in the English game
  • However cooled talk of England players threatening similar strikes as Wales
  • Lawes called on the Premierships relevant parties to sort out financial issues 

England players are not about to threaten strike action like their Welsh counterparts, but Courtney Lawes has warned that there is unrest about financial turmoil in the sport – and about the way it is being run.

The Northampton veteran will celebrate his 34th birthday on Thursday by being selected for a Test comeback in Cardiff, as a Red Rose replacement, after months of persistent injury frustrations. 

It is a personal feat to savour at a time of deep concerns about the overall state of the game, and Lawes – as a recent national captain – has the status to speak with conviction and authority about the uncomfortable mix of budget cuts, health scares and a cross-Channel exodus.

What was supposed to be an interview about recovering from a multitude of setbacks and closing in on a century of Test caps became an impromptu debate about trouble in the oval-ball landscape. 

‘It’s tough to see rugby in this in the state, and British rugby struggling like this,’ said Lawes. ‘We’ve got a lot of players leaving the Prem this season – bloody good players who could quite easily play for this team – a lot of whom are in their prime. It’s tough to see and obviously you feel for the Welsh boys and honestly want them to do what’s best for them.’

England’s Courtney Lawes belives there is plenty of room for improvement in the domestic leagues

Lawes admitted he ‘feels’ for Wales players ensnared in an ongoing contract dispute with the WRU

But vowed there is no similar talks of striking amongst the England dressing room

Asked if the militant mood in the Welsh camp might transmit into the England ranks too, Lawes sounded the alarm about simmering tensions, saying: ‘I don’t think that it’s perfect by any means in terms of PRL (Premiership Rugby) and the RFU, and where the players sit. 

‘I think there’s a lot of work to be done, especially if we want rugby to grow. A lot of stuff needs to be to be sorted out for this to be a successful game that we will want our kids to play when we’re older.

‘We were in a meeting with the RFU the other day and I said, ‘I’ve got three boys. I’d love them to play rugby, but at the minute how can I tell them to break their bodies for 15 to 20 years and then go back to another job afterwards when there are so many other sports you can professionally and never have to think about working again once you’re done?’.

‘We’re nowhere near strikes as far as I’ve heard. I think we are relatively happy – but we want what’s best for the game, and what we’ve got at the minute is not good enough.

‘We’ve got some of our best English players going to play in France now, because there’s not enough money in the Prem. That means they won’t be eligible for England so something has to give or there won’t be an England team that’s any good. 

‘We’ve got things to sort out. Hopefully the relevant parties can come together and we can get it on the right track, but it’s going to take some time.

‘I think the players here have to get involved – especially the boys that have been at the top of the game for a long time. We’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s going to make the game good, make the fans enjoy it, put bums on seats, and bring more money into the Prem.’

There is often a perception that professional rugby players earn extravagant salaries –because public impressions are shaped by an awareness of sky-high wages in the top tiers of football. But below international level, pay in the Premiership can be very modest, for such a dangerous occupation.

Wales coach Warren Gatland could see the weekend match against England postponed if his players go ahead with a strike

Lawes (middle with cup) has barely played since captaining the country against Australia in July last year

The 33-year-old (left) wants change by the RFU to help improve the financial state of the game

‘It is not easy to be a footballer and I’m not saying that by any degree that we should earn as much as footballers or anything like that,’ said Lawes. ‘I’m just saying it’s a tough ask to do a career like this. 

‘There are boys that have done this for 15 years, play for the same club, played X amount of games, broke themselves, and then they’re going to have to graft to make ends meet.

‘We’ve chosen this.. I don’t have to play rugby. But at the same time, it’d be great to have a better product, to be able to earn more money from it, to be able to have a career where you don’t have to worry about too much after it. I think rugby can get to a stage where it’s like that if the right things are done, but it’s going take a while for sure.’

Lawes has spent his whole career at Northampton and likes the notion of being a staunch one-club man. But he also admitted that he could be tempted to move abroad – and defended the right of players to seek their fortune, given the short shelf-life and the pitfalls of their occupation.

Lawes has been drafted into the English camp as a replacement player

‘If I was offered a deal that I couldn’t refuse in France or Japan, or wherever, it’s a great experience,’ he said. ‘So it’s not a bad place to be. I want to play the rest of the season for England, then we’ll see what’s on the horizon. I’ve been close to leaving Saints before, but they always find a bit of extra cash at the back of the sofa!

‘You’re worth it. It’s a finite career. You’ve got to make the most of it because it’s one of the sports where we’re talking about head injuries and dementia, and your body is not in the best shape when you finish the sport. Then you’re going to have to go and work again, even if you’ve been playing at the top, so you’ve got to make the most of it while you can.’

It has been an extremely difficult, disrupted 2022-23 campaign for Lawes – who captained England in their 2-1 series victory over the Wallabies in Australia last July and has barely played since. Having suffered a concussion and nerve trouble in his neck in September, he said: ‘I was out with that for a couple of months, then I came back and pulled my glute in my first game back. Then I had neck issues. Then I came back and did my calf – so it’s been a really good season!’

While he was still England’s head coach, Eddie Jones expressed concern about Lawes’ health as the concussion-related absence dragged on for a prolonged period. The player himself had doubts about his comeback prospects, adding: ‘There were points when I wasn’t recovering as well as I would have liked and you start thinking, ‘Am I ever going to be back?’.

‘With a head injury, you think about that even more because there’s also a thought of, ‘Is it worth it?’. But after speaking to the specialist, I knew there were lots of things I could do to mitigate against getting things like dementia.’

Lawes (with ball) has been plagued by injuries with Northampton throughout the current season

Steps will be taken to refine his trademark defensive activities, as a means of self-preservation. Lawes will seek to avoid ‘chasing the hit’ as he so often did in the past – but he is confident that he can slot straight back into England’s match-day squad despite a chronic shortage of game-time and offer a vast repertoire to help enhance Steve Borthwick’s new regime.

‘I’ve developed quite a few strings to my bow,’ he said. ‘When I was younger, I was only really hitting people – making loads of tackles and hitting rucks if we had the ball. But now I’ve got a defensive game that’s really strong, an attacking game that’s really strong and I can jackal as well as most people.

‘It doesn’t really matter where the game goes – I’ve always got opportunities to get involved. That’s why people like Steve (Borthwick) have faith in me, because I know where I can get myself into the game and make an impact. I’ve been playing at the highest level for 14 seasons, so I probably should know by now!’

After all those years, Lawes knows plenty about how to play the game – and he knows plenty about how it should be run, too. The English authorities need to listen to his views and those of the other senior men in the national squad, urgently, to address issues which are causing unrest and alarm.

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