The Northampton second row’s body has suffered during his stop-start, seven-year slog to the 50-cap landmark, and he is expecting further punishment in the autumn opener, given the formidable nature of the opposition ball-carriers whom he is charged with repelling.
Having overcome a nagging knee problem, Lawes is braced for his shoulders to feel the force of endless collisions with countless giant rivals. Yet, the idea is that the Boks will come off worse. Big hits have been the 27-year-old’s calling card since he surged to prominence in 2009, and despite acquiring the thinking lock’s ability to run the lineout along the way, he remains most focused on his destructive defensive duties.
Paul Gustard is the man in charge of ensuring that England hold the line and he said of Lawes: ‘He is finding the form we all know he has. He has got stopping power. He can hit people and shake them out of their boots.’
England have not beaten South Africa since 2006 and primal physicality has been the common denominator in that period of failure. While the Springbok class of 2016 have been in transition, they retain the ability to pound forward through monstrous carriers such as Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Tendai ‘Beast’ Mtawarira. Lawes will man the barricades, ready to turn them back.
‘I prefer to stop a big guy,’ he said on Wednesday. ‘I do that frequently for Saints, but when they are big guys the impact doesn’t look anywhere near as bad because they are as heavy as you are. As long as I am not missing tackles and I am doing my part for the team, I am happy.
‘I pride myself on being physical. It is not for myself. It is certainly not for my shoulders! It is for the team and giving energy to the boys. I am not too fussed about who I hit, whereI hit or how hard it is, as long as I am doing my job.’
Eddie Jones was assistant to Jake White when the Boks won the 2007 World Cup, and he has described how engrained enmity gives them an extra layer of intensity against England. Lawes is alert to the danger.
‘We have spoken about how physical they are and how their mindset changes when they come to England,’ he said. ‘Of course we have strategies to deal with their physicality.’
In the past, he has had to dismiss comparisons with Etzebeth, the visitors’ notoriously abrasive lock, on the understandable grounds that they are not built the same. Etzebeth is also about imposing size and power, but Lawes brings greater athleticism, mobility and explosive force.
‘Etzebeth is a big guy and he runs hard and straight,’ he said. ‘It’s about technique, your height in the tackle and things like that. I’m not going to fly into him and try and smoke him, but I can certainly put him down and make the next guy’s job a bit easier.’
Over time, his trademark defensive work has evolved. Lawes used to run amok trying to smash into opponents at every turn but now his approach is more considered. He selects his moments to strike.
‘I am still relying on my physicality butI don’t go around like I did when I was 20, throwing my body into everyone,’ he said. ‘It’s a lot more technique now and choosing my shots. You can’t fly into everyone as it doesn’t work.’
The upshot is that there are fewer of the blockbuster hits popping up on YouTube clips. Once upon a time, Lawes was an online sensation for his tackling, but he has curbed the excesses. He has taken the decline in notoriety in his stride, joking: ‘The laws are changing and I don’t want to put my team in any stress from getting cards so the online hits have taken a plunge!’
Saturday’s match will be a momentous event for a player who made his Test breakthrough when Martin Johnson was the England manager with an expert eye for a menacing lock. Lawes conceded that he could have reached his Test 50 some time ago, without the injuries, adding: ‘I’ve certainly done it the hard way.’
He claims to have retained some of the carefree streak he had when he made his debut with a late cameo against Australia at Twickenham in November, 2009. Since then, he has developed the art of calling the lineout, but concedes that he is not consumed by the subject, like England’s forwards coach, Steve Borthwick. Nor has he learned Afrikaans in a bid to thwart the Boks, as Ben Kay famously did years ago.
But he has confidence that the lineout can function well with him calling and his fellow Saint, Dylan Hartley, throwing in. And he also believes he can make some telling dents in the Springbok juggernaut, no matter how much his shoulders have to suffer from the effort.
Original source: 'Bring on Bok bruisers'