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Courtney Lawes will ‘run blood to water’ as Northampton finish looms
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Courtney Lawes will ‘run blood to water’ as Northampton finish looms

Fairytale finishes are not always available to order. As at least one of England’s most prominent modern rugby players is about to discover. Courtney Lawes and Owen Farrell have collectively given 33 years of service to Northampton and Saracens respectively but lose out in Friday night’s season-defining Gallagher Premiership playoff and the closing chapter will inevitably be bittersweet.

Then again, just imagine the wall of noise at Franklin’s Gardens if Lawes and Saints can march together into this year’s final. It is already a fixture with plenty of history attached, Northampton’s last league title having come at the expense of Sarries in extra time a decade ago. The following year, as now, Saints had a juicy-looking home semi-final against the same opponents and lost 29-24, with Dylan Hartley subsequently missing the 2015 World Cup after receiving a ban for head-butting Jamie George.

It says everything about the enduring quality of the respective captains that both Lawes and Farrell are still raging against the dying of the light and remain pivotal to this massive rematch. A couple of us asked Lawes this week whether his farewell home appearance, after 17 years, might prompt more reflection than usual. He politely set us straight. “I want to go out there and do what I have always done, which is to run my blood to water and give it everything I have,” he replied quietly. “I fully intend to do that.”

But once the season is over and he relocates to France to play for Brive it is bound to be an emotional wrench for all. Saints could rush out and sign three new forwards and still not feel entirely ready for life after big Courtney. There are also few players more intrinsically linked to their community. Lawes’s mother, Valerie, still lives barely two minutes’ walk from the stadium and he knows the surrounding streets like the back of his tattooed hand. “I am representing the people that I grew up with and the places I grew up in and I don’t take that lightly.”

It is ironic, then, that his first visit to Franklin’s Gardens, aged 13, did not result in love at first sight. “I came with my Uncle Pete. It was before England won the 2003 World Cup so I must have been about 12 or 13. I didn’t really have a clue what rugby was; that was the only game I came to watch and I didn’t think much of it. I was mad into my football and playing a lot of tennis, and rugby was not on the radar whatsoever. I didn’t even start playing it until a couple of years after.”

Owen Farrell and Courtney Lawes in England kit at a World Cup squad announcement in 2023.View image in fullscreen

One hundred and five caps for England and five further Tests for the British & Irish Lions later, Uncle Pete clearly deserves the thanks of an entire nation. Sometimes the value of certain players is only belatedly appreciated but, at 35, Lawes is still playing out of his skin and would love to tour again with the Lions next year. His director of rugby, Phil Dowson, cannot speak highly enough of his ongoing contribution. “The game has changed every year … it’s almost unrecognisable from when I was playing. If you’re stuck in your ways you fall off because the game moves on and somebody bigger, faster and stronger turns up.

“But his game has evolved as well. He’s bright enough to think: ‘I need to be a jackal threat if I want to play in the back row.’ In the World Cup he was getting turnover after turnover. You think: ‘Wow. You were a hitter and a lineout forward. Now you’re a jackal-er and a ball carrier.’ That’s impressive. How many players go from back row to second row when they slow down? He’s going the other way. He’ll be playing in the centre at Brive.”

Lawes has also had to contend with much injury pain over the years but, as Dowson says, you would never guess it. “We manage Courtney from a training load point of view but as soon as you drop him into something competitive you know he’ll be able to turn it on.” Against a top-class Saracens back row containing Ben Earl, Billy Vunipola and Juan Martín González, he will need to be at full throttle again if Saints are to secure a Twickenham final next week against either Bath or Sale Sharks.

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It would be the ideal leaving present if he can propel his club to one last trophy. As far back as his debut season in 2007 he contributed to Saints’ promotion back to the Premiership and, as well as the 2014 Premiership title, has helped win two European Challenge Cups in 2009 and 2014, the Anglo-Welsh Cup in 2010 and reached the 2011 Champions Cup final.

Along the way the quiet kid from a hard-working family – in his youth his mother worked as a prison officer while his father, Linford, who emigrated to Britain from Jamaica as a youngster, was a nightclub bouncer – has come to view rugby as more than just another game. “I think it is a great sport, not just as a spectacle but also its core values. You cannot become a great player without a substantial amount of hard work, you have to be respectful of others, you have to play for your team. Obviously you wish you get paid like footballers get paid – but we are doing all right, to be fair.” Northampton’s finest will soon be gone but he will for ever be a local legend.

Source: theguardian.com