Lions debutant Lawes has always had ‘that bit of X factor’

Courtney Lawes (picture: Kirsty Edmonds)
Courtney Lawes (picture: Kirsty Edmonds)
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It is a memory that is etched in the mind of Grant Seely - and one that comes flooding back when the name of Courtney Lawes is mentioned.

Seely spotted Lawes when working as an Academy coach at Saints and played a key role in the journey that has transformed the lock from fledgling talent to British & Irish Lions star.

Lawes made his debut for the Lions in New Zealand on Wednesday, impressing in a 22-16 defeat to the Bulls.

The trademark big hits and teak-tough carrying abilities were there for all to see as the 28-year-old took the next step in a season that has seen him fully realise his immense potential.

But Seely is still armed with memories of what Lawes was like before he reached the Saints first team, made a stack of England appearances and headed off on tour with the Lions.

And one recollection that still brings a smile to the face of the former Northampton forward is a Wanderers game against Saracens at Old Albanians RFC 10 years ago.

“Courtney was always one that stood up to the occasion,” said Seely, who left his role as Saints Academy coach in July 2010 is now head of rugby at Magdalen College in Oxford.

“I remember when the Wanderers played Saracens away and he was only 18 or 19. It was meant to be a friendly match, but Saracens picked Andy Farrell and a few of their big guns and it wasn’t a very good night for the Wanderers, we were a bit out of our depth, but Courtney was one who stood up.

“He flattened Andy Farrell with a good tackle and it was the highlight of the night.

“At the time it was the biggest game of Courtney’s life, playing against internationals and he was the same when he played for England Under 20s, the same when he got full England caps and now he’s the same playing for the Lions.

“He doesn’t get fazed by anything, he’s so laid back and it’s brilliant to watch him pull the England shirt on, then get a call-up for the Lions.

“I’m just chuffed to bits for him.”

Lawes’ journey into the Saints Academy came after Seely spotted him playing for East Midlands Under 18s against Oundle School.

Seely and his fellow Academy coaches at the time, Rob Hunter and Ali Hepher, took in four games in which Lawes was involved in before attempting to bring him into the Saints set up.

They sat down with his parents, explaining why the Hackney-born youngster should make the move into the arms of Northampton, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“He was the first one that stood out to us,” Seely said.

“It was my first mission trying to find talented players and he turned out to be a British Lion so it’s pretty remarkable.

“I remember thinking it would be an easy job if we got someone like Courtney each year, but it wasn’t the case.

“He just had that bit of X factor in the early days, something that stood out.

“He was tall and athletic, he had the ability to knock people back in the tackle and he stood out a mile away.

“He’s obviously continued to get stronger and stronger and made it at international level.

“I’m chuffed to bits from him. He’s such a nice lad, a local lad from up the road.”

Plenty of work was done with Lawes during the early years as the Saints Academy coaches tried to shape his future.

“In the early days it was all about getting him into good habits,” Seely explained.

“He was playing to a good level and when he got into the Academy, we just thought he needed a bit of education, a bit of mentoring in terms of the discipline needed for professional rugby.

“We got hold of him later than other boys. The likes of Mike Haywood, Jamie Elliott and Tom Collins were in the Academy from 12, 13, 14 years old so we could put five years of work into improving them.

“But with Courtney we had to put in a fair bit of time with his mum and dad about what to expect and it wasn’t a really smooth journey, but years later he’s a shoo-in for the British Lions against New Zealand and it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Lawes, raised a stone’s throw from Franklin’s Gardens, in Jimmy’s End, made his Saints debut in a National League One game against Esher in the 2007/08 season.

He has now made a total of 192 Northampton appearances, also winning 58 England caps.

And having shrugged off a string of injury problems that blighted him, Lawes has been in fantastic form for club and country.

“Maybe it’s because of the competition he’s got at England level with Maro Itoje and George Kruis playing so well,” Seely said.

“It resonates with my career because when you’ve got Pat Lam and Andy Blowers coming on, you’ve got to step up.

“Courtney is a shoo-in for his club but at international level he’s competing against absolute quality and he’s stepped up this year.

“He’s had a great season and long may it continue for the next four or five weeks.”

And while getting better and better on the field, Seely insists former Northampton Old Scouts player Lawes remains grounded off it.

“I saw him in the England camp before the Scotland game in the Six Nations this year and he was just chatting away like he was 10 years ago,” Seely said.

“He’s not let it get to him, he’s just a good local lad who’s worked his socks off and he deserves everything he’s getting right now.”