Courtney Lawes has spent the past 14 weeks making the most of the unexpected time he has had with his four young children, but as the coronavirus pandemic took a financial toll on the game, the England forward confronted a choice that has been a dilemma for only the very best: sign a new club contract on reduced terms or seek a big payday abroad, accepting it would mean the end of his international career.
Lawes has spent his senior career at Northampton, growing up a couple of hefty punts from Franklin’s Gardens. At 31, he may not have time to make up the 25% pay cut Premiership clubs have agreed with their players. He was linked with Béziers, a second-tier French club who are close to being taken over by an Emirati billionaire, but last week he signed a new deal with the Saints.
“I know I am in a more fortunate position than most of the other lads but it has been a tough time,” says Lawes, who has won 85 England caps in the second and back rows and appeared in two Tests for the Lions. “I tried to keep my head down during lockdown but there was a lot of stuff going on in terms of contracts and we had several Zoom meetings.
“As a player, if you are on a set amount of money for a fixed period of time, you live your life by that, such as getting a mortgage based on what you are earning. If you take a big hit, it can affect you. Northampton were open and honest about it, sharing financial information so we could see we were not being taken advantage of. That helped ease the transition into what it is now.”
A week ago, Béziers were reported to be at an advanced stage of talks with Lawes. How close was he to going? “My first option was always to stay at Northampton, but your career only lasts a certain time and you have to make your money while you can,” he says.
“Rugby is not like football. When my career is over, I will not be able to retire. I will have to find work and that means making sure you get what you are worth now. I was linked with Béziers but I did not hear much from them. They did speak to my agent but I think they were just making a bit of noise. It was never really an option and I am glad to be staying at Northampton. I want to remain involved with England and think I can make it to the next World Cup.”
Lawes has made more than twice as many appearances for England than Northampton in the past year, missing the opening months of the season because of the World Cup and then playing in the Six Nations, a tournament England are favourites to win despite losing their opening match in Paris three months after South Africa defeated them in the World Cup final.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the World Cup,” he says. “Japan is some country and the people there were lovely. We played some brilliant rugby and that a young team represented itself really well. We played Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in consecutive weeks at the end and the final was one of those games which did not go our way.
“South Africa were the better side on the day and had the edge over us mentally. Why, I do not know. We prepared as best we could, but it was tough backing up three massive games in a row. If you are off in a World Cup final by even a tiny bit, it shows: fair play to them, they executed a great strategy and deserved to win. We will be the wiser for the experience in 2023.
“The defeat to France taught us a lot. They tend to be underestimated because they are an up-and-down team. When they are home and on it, they are one of the toughest sides to beat. They have such quality and athletes, stuffed full of individuals who are game-breakers. They were better than us and we had to take it on the chin. I think the loss was good for us: it showed that when things do not go our way we have to adapt, not carry on with the same game plan.”
Clubs resume full training on Monday after three weeks of fitness work. “We have been in groups of eight and it has been like pre-season,” he says. “I have enjoyed spending extra time with the family but I am looking forward to a bit of contact in training and playing again.
“We have the ability to make the Premiership final, a young team with great potential, but we will have to hit the ground running.”
Lawes is a senior figure in the England and Northampton teams, far removed from the quiet young man who made his name with his powerful tackling. Does he see himself as a captain? “I have always been a quick learner and my game is different now, more about reading a game and making good decisions,” he says. “I am experienced for my age and look to bring that to the team, but I am too laid back to be a captain. You have to be on it all the time, and while I am on the pitch, off it I am pretty chilled and do not like to stress too much. I am happy to lead by example.”