Courtney Lawes was swiftly re-instated as England captain on Thursday after recovering from a worrying head knock — as due reward for banishing Eddie Jones’s initial doubts about him.
The Northampton forward celebrated turning 33 on Wednesday with a chocolate cake at the Red Rose base in Surrey and after his birthday came the gift of a recall to the national team, to face Wales at Twickenham on Saturday.
Lawes hasn’t played since an appearance for Saints against Ulster on January 16, but the near six-week hiatus did not stop Jones from making him skipper again.
Courtney Lawes will make his first appearance of this year’s Championship after a concussion
England boss Eddie Howe has praised how Lawes has managed to turn his career around
Having named him to lead a side featuring four vice-captains — Tom Curry, Ellis Genge, Luke Cowan-Dickie and Henry Slade — the coach revealed that when he took charge of England at the end of 2015, his first impressions of Lawes were not favourable.
‘I remember watching him for England and he was like a torpedo coming out of the line and drilling people,’ said Jones. ‘When I first got here, I admit I was not that impressed by him. His attitude was very laid-back, he had a lot of injuries and he didn’t train much.
‘I don’t mind the club sandwiches because he needs to keep weight on. It was not looking after his body in terms of the rehab and he needed to train harder. He wasn’t training hard. He was doing more rehab than training hard, but he sorted that out very well. He’s a real role model for our team.
‘He had to come up to the standards of what we require and he has done that brilliantly. I could not fault his dedication and his discipline now. He knows his body and he looks after his body well. He is committed to being the best player he can be, but he hasn’t changed as a person.’
England kick-off against Wales in the Six Nations at Twickenham Stadium on Saturday
With long-term captain Owen Farrell out of the Six Nations after ankle surgery, Jones matter-of-factly explained the decision to hand the captaincy back to Lawes, after two games in which Curry took the armband.
‘Courtney was going to be captain when Owen was unavailable, so it’s a natural change,’ he said. ‘He has good skills around the players. When he speaks, they listen. He leads by example.’
After England finished fifth in last year’s championship, an RFU review pinpointed several key factors including a core of the squad being short of game-time. That will be an issue for Lawes on Saturday, but Jones was adamant that the man he will deploy at blindside flanker can hit the ground running.
‘Courtney tends to play pretty well fresh on to the paddock,’ he said. ‘He’s got quite a unique body — he’s fast-twitch but he’s tall and skinny, so it’s easy to get the work into him, which has happened. We believe he’ll be able to play a significant role in the game.
Just the sixth game in history where the captains of both teams play for the same club
‘Recall the Tonga game in the autumn. I don’t think he played a lot of rugby before that, but he made that (try-saving) tackle on Telusa Veainu in the corner, coming from absolutely nowhere.’
Reacting to his recall, Lawes opened up about his recent injury saga, saying: ‘I had taken a couple of little knocks in the past month or two. I was a little worried, obviously, because it is to do with your head. We got a scan, I saw a specialist, and he said it was nothing to do with my brain, which was a massive relief.
‘It was to do with my vestibular system; the connection between your eyes, ears and neck. It had essentially got a bit rattled. I had headaches which didn’t go away for a while. I also had headrush-like symptoms. It was all explained quite well so that gave me peace of mind. It is nothing from a long-term health point of view, which is fantastic. I knew I just had to take my time, I have been able to train and work hard while doing rehab for this so I am feeling good.’
Eddie Jones says he ‘was not that impressed by’ Lawes when he first joined England group
Asked about managing to change Jones’s past perceptions, Lawes added: ‘I knew I had to change and adapt to keep playing for England and I had the dedication to do that. He didn’t tell me about my standards in training. He essentially said, “I need you to hit and carry and if you can’t do that, you won’t be in the team”.
‘At the time, I was still good at D (defence), but I had let my carrying game go by the wayside. I knew I had to get back into it.’
Jones has confidence in Lawes and the rest of England’s on-field hierarchy, but he knows that Wales will present a tough, street-wise challenge. ‘We know what’s coming and it will be a leadership test,’ he said.