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England tour was just what I needed after Lions setback

England lock and Wasps captain Joe Launchbury tells NEALE HARVEY how he has overcome his Lions disappointment and is targeting silverware with club and country.

How did it feel being back with England last week so soon after the Argentina tour?

It’s been a busy but enjoyable summer and coming into camp and meeting up with some of the guys coming back from the Lions, it really hit home how close we are to starting all over again. I’ve been back with Wasps for a few weeks so I’m just excited to get going now.

How do you reflect on that 2-0 series win over the Pumas?

I was really pleased with the way the Argentina tour went, both individually and as a team. We were given a pretty clear objective to get on with things after what happened with the (Lions) selection issues and I was pleased with the way I tried to stand up. Obviously we had a young side who hadn’t played together and it was pretty important that the guys who had played before really performed. I felt I and the others did that.

You could have been on a major downer after missing out on Lions selection. How did Eddie Jones deal with that?

He was really good. Obviously I had the disappointment of losing the Premiership final as well the day before meeting up with England, but it was probably just what I needed. If I’d spent six weeks mulling over what happened in the last few minutes at Twickenham, on top of my Lions non-selection, it might have been quite hard to take. But to come into that England camp and all the excitement around the squad with so many guys who’d not been involved before, it’s pretty hard not to feel the energy they brought. To then get stuck in and understand it was two massively important games was great. You don’t get that many opportunities to earn an England shirt and I’ve had times over the last couple of years when I’ve been desperate to play and start but haven’t, so that’s what I got over the summer.

What were those clear objectives Eddie gave you?

That on and off-field leadership was important. Dylan Hartley was fantastic in that area, along with other senior guys, and it was important for me to play at the level I knew I could and to try and handle the ball a bit more. I felt I carried the ball well in Argentina and they were extremely fun games to play in, with great weather and a good atmosphere in football-style stadiums. I love touring and tried to contribute as much as I could off the field as well.

Going into last week’s season-opening England camp, how was your one-on-one with Eddie?

It was actually with Steve Borthwick and Neal Hatley! It was good to catch up again with Steve from him being away with the Lions and I learnt a fair bit about his experiences in New Zealand and what I can add to my game to keep improving. That’s the secret now, we’re two years into this Test cycle and we can’t stand still. Last week’s camp gave us objectives to go back to our clubs with and try to integrate those into our games.

It must have been an awkward meeting with Steve Borthwick after he was part of the Lions selection process that rejected you?

No, he’s been brilliant and our relationship is very professional. He said he was pleased with the way I went away and played in Argentina. That’s sport, isn’t it? I knew from the outset how fierce the competition was going into that Lions tour and there’s no issue from my side of things.

What must you do to ensure you are on the next Lions tour in 2021?

Listen to the improvements the coaches closest to me want to make, which is Dai Young and the coaches at Wasps and Eddie and his coaches with England. They’re on the same page in terms of what they’re looking for from me and if I can stay injury-free, that’s going to be really important for me. Last year was one of my first in being injury-free and the improvements that came from that in terms of ball-carrying and set-piece were pretty clear, so now it’s down to consistency of performance whilst improving on the nuts and bolts of my game.

When you see someone like Nick Isiekwe, above, racing through at 19, how conscious are you of the huge competition for England second row places?

It was actually quite scary sitting next to Nick on the plane to Argentina and seeing his passport date. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt old! I’ve always considered myself a young player but, at 26, I might be getting to the stage where I’ve become a middle-aged one. Nick’s brought a load of energy, hasn’t he? He’s a good athlete and being around that England environment is only going to help him, so the onus is on all of us other second rows to keep improving.

How big a two years is this coming up for you and other England guys ahead of the 2019 World Cup?

Every time you play you know you are being watched, whether it’s for your club or England. Your performances are always being assessed and Eddie Jones always says he wants you to go back to your club and play like an England player. That’s massively important because you can’t just dip in and out of this, we have to stay in for as long as we can and keep looking to improve and keep pushing each other. We’re in quite a good place with two years to go but we understand at the same time there’s a whole load of work to go through first. There’s no divine right to be in this team and if you’re not performing for your club you’ll be struggling, so the message is clear.

With that in mind, what did you make of Eddie’s stance last week in dismissing Manu Tuilagi and Denny Solomona from camp for disciplinary reasons?

Eddie didn’t say too much to us because I don’t think he needed to. It just shows that being part of this squad is pretty special and you’ve got to make the right choices. There are lots of people who are desperate to be there, and when you’re there you’ve got to train and play as hard as you can and make the right decisions on and off the field. It all filters through, doesn’t it? If we want to be the best side in the world we can’t afford to give away needless penalties and you’ve got to be spot on in every aspect of discipline, which extends to how you lead your life off the pitch.

How much does losing the last Six Nations Grand Slam match against Ireland still rankle?

It was certainly a missed opportunity. Sometimes you get opportunities in your life to do something special and winning back-to-back Grand Slams was one of them. To win back-to-back Six Nations championships is pretty special in itself, more than I’ve ever done before, but losing in Dublin certainly left a bitter taste in the mouth and it’s about how you react to those setbacks. Argentina was a good starting point and hopefully we can go up another level in November.

Despite your personal Lions disappointment, what can the England squad take out of that drawn series between the Lions and New Zealand?

There are lots of positives and it showed that you can go there and perform. New Zealand are the No.1 side in the world for a reason but that doesn’t mean they’re unbeatable and the Lions forced them into making mistakes and came close to an historic series win. A lot of England players were part of that squad so there’s lots we can take from it, but all we can focus on now is November, which doesn’t involve New Zealand. It’s exciting to play Argentina again, though, because having just beaten them twice, it’ll be a big battle of the game plans.

With your Wasps’ captaincy hat on, how satisfied were you to reach the Premiership final?

There were ten other clubs who were desperate to be in that final so I guess that’s a positive, but I’m certainly not happy with losing it to Exeter. Coming second is not something I’ve processed massively because all I’m excited about now is what’s to come. I don’t feel we particularly excelled in quite a few areas last year as a club. Our attack was obviously good and we scored a lot of tries but there’s a lot more growth in us defensively and as a playing group, so hopefully we can keep knocking on the door and realise that potential. There’s no divine right for us to win the Premiership, though, and there are a lot of teams you think could make the top four this year, so the work we’re putting in is testament to the fact we’re not resting on our laurels.

What makes you believe Wasps can go one step further and this time lift the trophy?

The positive for us is we haven’t turned over too many players. I’ve been at the club seven years and it’s been 15 in, 15 out every season, so this is the first year we’ve managed to keep the bulk of our squad together. Kurtley Beale’s gone back to Australia but we’ve signed Juan de Jongh and hopefully that stability will help. You see successful sides like Exeter and Saracens and they’ve done it consistently for years now, so that’s what we need to do. Also, a lot of people said we had a soft underbelly last season and would concede five tries a game whilst scoring six, but we don’t want to be that side anymore, we want to be tough to beat – and we will be.

Is it a case that you maybe have to lose a final before you win one, as Saracens and Exeter found?

It’s an easy thing to say that when you’ve lost you can use that experience, so ask me that in a couple of years and hopefully I’ll be able to say it was a springboard. On the other hand, Bath made a final, lost it and then fell off a cliff, so it’s important we don’t think we’ve cracked it. Dai Young will remind us of that many times and it’s up to us to keep pushing in the right direction.

How much growth do you feel Wasps have in their forward pack?

We have to improve in that area. We feel we’ve got quality with a few guys either in the England squad or knocking on the door, while at times last year we really mixed it with some top packs and scored good driving lineout tries, but it’s about how we use the ball now and we’re looking for improvements in that area and how we defend as well.

Looking back, do you think the heavy Champions Cup quarter-final defeat at Leinster cost you and some of your teammates Lions and England selection?

Possibly. You look to big games and quarter-finals in Europe to try and stand up and perform and we didn’t do it that day. We were poor as it happens. But we didn’t have too many games like that and we had a lot of great moments as well. That day at the Aviva was a tough one but the way we came off that was brilliant and people shouldn’t forget that. We went on a roll in the league and pulled off some big wins, including Northampton, Saracens and Leicester. We just fell short against Exeter but it showed a lot about the squad and that’s what I’m most excited about.

Would you agree that the Premiership title has to be your aim this season?

There’s only one step further from last season and that’s to win it. But if you look at recruitment elsewhere, Quins have signed brilliant players, as have Leicester, and teams like Northampton and Gloucester are not going to want seasons like they had last year or there’ll be serious issues there. If we can get into the top four we’d back ourselves to go one better than last season, but it’s how you negotiate the season. We may have a few more international players this year and might be missing people during what are historically strong blocks for us, so all those things come into play.

Have you enjoyed the Wasps’ captaincy since taking over from James Haskell, above, last year?

I have. It’s not something I thought I’d ever do but Dai Young and I spoke a couple of years ago and he always asked me if it was something I’d like. I always said yes but didn’t think it would be so soon as I thought Hask might have kept it. But Dai thought it was the right time to change and I’ve loved it. There’s been a lot more attention to detail and you can’t just turn up for training and get through it – not that I did that anyway – you’ve now got to be the leader out there, talking and bringing the energy to the group. It’s really helped my game and I’m keen to carry on.

Has Wasps’ legend Lawrence Dallaglio offered much advice?

He’s around the club a lot now and has been a good sounding board. I chat to him quite a bit and there won’t have been many captains around like him. I don’t think I could ever aspire to be compared to him as a character, but if I could achieve half his success in terms of lifting trophies, I’d be well satisfied.

*Joe Launchbury was speaking at the launch of Canterbury’s 2017 England Rugby shirt. Pre-order at Canterbury.com

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