Courtney Lawes has joined The Telegraph's Lions team
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Courtney Lawes is sitting alone in his room in the Montecasino hotel in Johannesburg after the coronavirus curfew as he contemplates what the British and Irish Lions means to him.
South Africa’s Covid-19 restrictions have deprived the squad of many of the social and cultural activities that make touring with the Lions such a red-letter moment in a player’s career. But rooming alone does not bother Lawes.
“I don’t mind it,” he says, with an infectious laugh. “At least I don’t have someone snoring in the bed beside me. That is one of the good things about all this.”
Lawes has always been an independent spirit and a free thinker, even in one of the most demanding of team cultures. It is an attitude that should make his column with Telegraph Sport, which starts next week, compelling reading during the eight-game tour in South Africa, beginning with the Sigma Lions on Saturday at Ellis Park.
His passion for freedom of expression has recently made a mark off the field as well as on it, with Lawes not afraid to challenge opinions on social media to stand up for his own beliefs. He has become tired of the toxic environment of Twitter, however, preferring to use other modes of communication to make an impact in social justice.
“It’s interesting because people want you to be yourself, unless you say the wrong thing and then they want you to shut up,” he says. “I think everybody should be entitled to their opinion, everyone should be able to express themselves within the boundaries of the law.
“We should respect and, if needed, challenge opinions that we don’t like but certainly shouldn’t try to shut people down or abuse people that we don’t agree with. I think it is best to have a conversation. I’m just me. If I have got something to say, I am going to say it.”
Lawes admits to not knowing anything about the Lions as a child, despite growing up in the shadow of Franklin’s Gardens, the home of Northampton, but he is fully in tune with the legend of the touring side now. His overriding priority now the squad have finally arrived in South Africa is to do the shirt justice, whatever restrictions they have to endure over the next five weeks.
Courtney Lawes (left) walks out to train with the Lions in South Africa
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That is not to say mentors have not had a role in his life. His father, Linford, has had a major impact, encouraging him to be free of spirit and to seize every opportunity that came his way to ensure he maximised his potential. But he also forged a relaxed and love-of-life attitude from his father, who arrived in Britain from Jamaica when he was 12.
“He worked as a bouncer when I was younger and normally looked after us during the day,” Lawes says. “He was very involved in my life during my early years and has been a big influence on how I am as a person.
“I’m very similar to my dad, we hold many of the same views in a lot of things. Obviously, not everything. We certainly have some opposing opinions on things but the majority of stuff we agree on and I get my kind of mindset and general logic and thought process from my dad, I think.”
That inner strength has served him well through his professional career, which has earned the 32-year-old 87 England caps. “When I was growing up, I played football and wanted to be a footballer,” he recalls. “We were not a rugby family or anything like that. Even though we lived down the road from the Saints, none of my family have ever played rugby before.”
It was not until he became a professional with the Saints when he was about 18 that he first became aware of the Lions and began to understand and appreciate the history behind the famous red shirt.
Having played in two of the three Tests off the bench in New Zealand four years ago, he found touring an exhilarating experience. Many of those friends he made – including Dan Biggar, Iain Henderson, Tadhg Furlong and Robbie Henshaw – are with him again in South Africa and he cannot wait to add another chapter to his rugby life experience.
“I really loved the last tour,” he says. “I thought it was so cool. All the boys were awesome. I loved the bonding and getting out to see lots of stuff and doing lots of things. It was all part of the tour. From a rugby point of view, it was probably one of the few seasons I got through without any sort of injury. I was in good form and pushing for that Test spot. I just loved the whole experience.”
Courtney Lawes (second right) played a key role in the Lions' drawn series in New Zealand
But when I ask if he felt it necessary to draw inspiration or take advice from others on how to cope with the unique challenges of living with the Lions, he insists he relied only on himself.
“I’ve always been pretty independent,” he says. “I’ve never really needed to have any idols, in rugby or, say, in football. I didn’t think about it too much, I just enjoyed playing and being competitive.
“I’ve always just wanted to be my own player. On that tour I wouldn’t say that I had anybody mentor me and I didn’t really need it. I was in great form and I was really pushing hard for that Test spot.”
It is in part that determination of character that persuaded Warren Gatland to select the Northampton player for his second tour despite missing the final three games of the Six Nations Championship with a pectoral injury.
Now, as a father of four, he wants to make his own family proud by setting his sights on winning a place in the Test side, where his physicality could play a crucial role in containing the immense Springbok pack.
“My saving grace for this tour is the fact that we’re playing South Africa and you’re going to need some decent hitters, so I always knew I had that going in my favour,” he says. “I want to push for that Test spot again.” Room-mate or not.