With the sun glinting off the ocean just across from the scenic Coogee Oval it is not the easiest week for England’s players to focus entirely on rugby. Many have been strapping on their body armour since last August and for a British & Irish Lion like Courtney Lawes there has been scant respite. “It has been a tough year, the longest season I can remember for a long while,” said the England captain.
One last effort on Saturday and he can finally have a holiday but the amount of punishment he and several of his colleagues are having to absorb is colossal. Inside the past 12 months, including the three Tests he started for the Lions in South Africa, Lawes has featured in 26 major games for club and country. With Tom Curry and Maro Itoje now missing, it makes him the only ever-present starting English Test Lion still standing.
If those 26 matches – with a series-deciding 27th to come – is fewer than he has totalled in some previous seasons that is only because of the heavy knock that sidelined the 32-year-old for the first part of the Six Nations and the compound fracture thumb dislocation in April that briefly threatened to cut short his season. Ladle on the extra responsibility of the national captaincy and his physically demanding position and his workload has been immense.
At least, as England captain, Lawes now has a regular platform to speak up on such issues and rugby officialdom needs to listen to him. If the glorious view from the first floor of the Coogee Surf Lifesavers Club is good for anyone’s soul, the benefit may not last long if Saints have an early-season injury crisis. “The reduction of the Premiership salary cap doesn’t help because now we have fewer players and we are going to have to play more,” said Lawes.
“It is tough. The Premiership doesn’t want fewer games because fewer games is less money. But at least let us have a squad size where we can rotate and adjust. If Saints pick up two injuries in the back row then I’m in, I’m not getting a rest. Things can be done better but it’s not one to get into now.”
There is no masking the fact, though, that the attrition rate in the Australia v England series – as well as the first two Tests between New Zealand and Ireland – has been uncomfortably high. Lawes makes the fair point that enhanced head injury protocols are leading to more players sitting out games – “I see it as a good thing” – but is far from blind to the wider picture. “There have been plenty of other serious injuries, especially on their side, which is tough and unfortunate to see.
“It is the nature of the game at this point because there are so many good athletes, so many big collisions and it’s a tough sport.”
Which is why, in Lawes’s view, the players’ only real option is to buckle up and get on with it. “I don’t think you can trouble yourself with it too much because it is what it is. We all know what we signed up for. A lot of it is down to luck, people catching the ball and coming down awkwardly, getting landed on and stuff like that. It’s bad luck and unfortunately it happens.”
The only upside is that one man’s misfortune is someone else’s opportunity, with Leicester’s Ollie Chessum and Northampton’s Lewis Ludlum looking likely to be invited to fill the starting vacancies left by the unavailable Itoje and Sam Underhill respectively.
Regardless of the chosen starting XV, Lawes is keen for England to strike the right balance between much-needed rest and being mentally spot on for Saturday’s series decider.
“The leaders and the management got together and spoke about the importance of getting this week right,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we’ve got something in the tank.”
Securing a series win from 1-0 down would be a “massive” outcome in Lawes’s view and he is well aware the visiting pack will be central to the outcome. “England have always had a pretty set-piece dominated gameplan so it’s just about utilising that. To finish the job would give a young squad like ours a lot of belief.”