Getting to grips with Lawes
England play Wales in a fortnight and the clamour is growing to start Northampton forward Courtney Lawes in that match. It's more than a media campaign. England manager Martin Johnson and his senior coaches are keen to play him too. Lawes is a fantastic athlete: hard, aggressive, quick, predatory, with all the instincts of a Test stalwart. He is precisely what England require to bring some devil to their sluggish forward effort. But Lawes is 20. His only sniff of Test rugby so far has been a 12-minute appearance off the bench against Australia in the autumn. Is he good to go now?
I don't think so. Not yet anyway. If Lawes were being introduced as a new member of an impressive, stable England front five, then there would be no problem. It wouldn't matter who England were up against because there is no doubt that Lawes, provided he stays healthy, has a fabulous future ahead of him.
But England aren't in that position. They have problems at loose-head where Johnson might decide to have a crack with Matt Mullan, the inexperienced Worcester prop, and there is the issue of captaincy to resolve should Lawes replace Steve Borthwick in the second row. If Andrew Sheridan were fit, if Dylan Hartley and David Wilson had a dozen more caps each, if Simon Shaw was guaranteed to reach the heights he touched in the summer with the Lions, if England were coming into the Wales match with a better track record behind them, then no bother. Lawes plays.
But England are far from that ideal scenario and Lawes, as he showed in his performance for Northampton against Munster on Friday, is still very raw, very naive. That game was a good indicator as to Lawes' readiness because it resembled a Test in the intensity of the physical exchanges, and, more importantly, it resembled a Test in the way it showcased how lawless and anarchic international rugby can be.
Lawes was selected as a flanker for that match and he was fine. It took him a while to get going but when he did, from the start of the second half, he was impressive. His pace allowed him to get in the face of some of the Munster backs, forcing them into errors, and his power was one of the reasons why Munster were in such a pickle at the scrummage. All in all, it was a tolerable effort, yet the standout flanker in that game was the 35-year-old Alan Quinlan who bullied and bossed and niggled. Quinlan was everything Lawes was not.
That, though, is not to condemn Lawes out of hand because, just as he has not learned how to rile and annoy which is Quinlan's stock-in-trade, so Quinlan, even in the splendour of his youth, would never get close to matching Lawes' supreme athleticism, and Test rugby these days is fast becoming the exclusive preserve of extraordinary physical specimens. That is why it is so tempting to play Lawes. You just know he would survive and he would contribute.
And were it not for Borthwick and the captaincy, that might be the way to go, even with all the reservations outlined above. But Borthwick runs the England line-out, has done for years in pretty tidy fashion. Asking Lawes to do that and start his first game for his country is not an option. Shaw doesn't do it for Wasps and his line-out capability is not why he is in the side.
It is that, more than the captaincy, which might count against Lawes, which is an error of succession-planning as much as anything else. It is ridiculous that England's two worst locks, Borthwick and Louis Deacon, are deemed indispensable because they are attuned to the intricacies of an international line-out, but that's where England are.
Captaincy is not such a big deal. Nick Easter or Lewis Moody could do the job against Wales and through the Six Nations, and Hartley is a long-term option.
As for Lawes? I'd have him in the 22 for Wales and bring him on for Borthwick after 50 minutes when the game has settled down somewhat. That seems to me the best way to handle him at the moment, with a view to starting him later in the Six Nations if he gets through that unscathed.
And I'd also get Easter, or Hartley, or Shaw, someone, anyone to share responsibility for operating the line-out.