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Q&A – Joe Launchbury: ‘I’m pretty locked in at Wasps’

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Wasps and England lock Joe Launchbury

Wasps captain Joe Launchbury tells NEALE HARVEY why he has full confidence in the club’s future as he continues his bid for further England honours.

How’s lockdown been for you?

Different! At the start the timescales were never quite set. Games were stopping but we didn’t know when they might restart so I threw myself into a training programme at home which I’ve actually really enjoyed. I’ve had ten years playing professional rugby and basically being told what to do, where to go and when to do it so to have a little bit of control over doing training I wouldn’t normally do was interesting. Also, I normally just have five weeks off each summer and have a very short pre-season after being away on a tour so you don’t get that much time to focus on your body, but I’ve been able to iron out a couple of niggly injuries I wanted to get on top of and I’ve enjoyed doing that away from the stress of games and having to perform.

You’ve added to your family, haven’t you?

Yes. My son, Hayden, was born a week before lockdown, the Wednesday before the England v Wales game. I came back and played against Wales a couple of days after he was born and everything went on hold the following week. He’s just getting around to meeting a lot of the family now so it’s been a strange time, but to be able to have had some quality time at home with a new-born has been a real positive. I’d love to be able to say I’ve been doing loads of exciting stuff but, in reality, I’ve been changing nappies and waking up in the middle of the night. It’s all good though.

Wasps back in contact training?

Last week was our second as a whole squad training together so although off the pitch it’s still very much about social distancing and there are still peculiarities around that, it’s beginning to feel normal again; games are coming into view quickly and the hope is we can carry on where we left off in March. We were quite pleased with our form from the turn of the year but results-wise it really began to show in the last month before lockdown. The break didn’t come at the best time and we’d have loved to have carried on, but what this period has done is given us the chance to reinforce that. We’ve had a few changes to our S&C staff and coaching structure so it’s given us time to bed everyone in and we’ve also got a whole lot of people back from injury, so we’ll be picking from a very healthy squad.

Personally, how shocked were you by Dai Young’s departure in February?

Dai’s been a constant for me, not only in my Wasps career but being a big supporter for me in my career as a whole. It still feels strange that he’s not here but what we have done is promoted from within with Lee Blackett taking charge and the coaches around him staying the same, bar Richard Blaze coming in to run the forwards. A lot of things feel the same so it’s still the same club.

Dai said recently that it was the right time to move on – agree with that?

It’s very hard in professional sport to keep going in the same job and I guess that’s why you don’t often see people stay as long as he did. The service he gave over nine years was extremely loyal but, as he said himself, sometimes organisations need a change of direction regardless of whether what’s going on is right or wrong. A change of voice can often help and we knew we weren’t far off in a very tight league where small margins can make the difference between being a top four side or a bottom four side, so maybe the change did spark an upturn in results.

What do you make of Richard Blaze, ten years a coach but still only 35?

He’s younger than Jimmy Gopperth, which is really weird! Richard obviously had to retire young through injury but he’s taken his coaching opportunities and he’s now a forwards coach with a lot of experience who’s come in with a remit of putting a lot of detail into our pack. I’ve always believed we’ve got talented forwards here who suit the style we want to play so his role is to tighten that up and improve the detail, which, hopefully, will make us a better team when the weather is bad. When you’re playing in rough conditions your pack has to win you games, so that’s the aim.

You re-signed last November and recently extended that deal again, so what’s been the thought process?

Re-signing in November was probably one of the easier decisions I’ve made. I’ve always made clear my affinity and love for the club, but whenever I’m out of contract I try to reassess and understand what’s best for me as an individual as well. Last November, it was still very clear to me that there’s a project here that I was excited about: I believe a lot in the young players here and the future I can see the club has, and what’s happened in the last few weeks in terms of my own circumstances is not much different. Obviously, things have changed – rugby’s changed – and for us as players there’ve been opportunities to extend our contracts slightly, so that’s been a positive and I definitely see myself being here for a good few more years now.

Fifteen other players extended at the same time, including Dan Robson, Thomas Young, Jack Willis and Jacob Umaga. How pleased were you with that?

Staying with Wasps: Flanker Thomas Young allayed calls to move home to Wales to re-sign with Wasps. Getty Images

Delighted because if you look at successful models of clubs who have done well in the Premiership, they tend to keep a core group of players over a number of years and we’ve started that again now. For a number of years we’ve had quite a big turnover of players, but this summer it’s just a handful and that gives us an opportunity to build. I do believe we’ve got some very good young players at the club, guys like Jack, Jacob and others who are not just pushing for the first team but are already a big part of it and are of a similar age profile. It’s important as a club that we keep all these guys and rather than having just myself and one or two others who’ve played for the club for a number of years, in future we’ll have ten or 15 who’ve been here for a large chunk of their careers. Our academy is beginning to pay dividends and a big reason why I want to be here is that I want to help bring these young guys through, just as Richard Birkett was once great with me when I first turned up at the club. He was a huge help when I was a young kid so I want to return the favour.

Knowing there are cutbacks and job losses elsewhere because of Covid-19, how hard is it for players to focus on your own jobs?

First and foremost, as a playing group at Wasps the lads have been absolutely fantastic through all of this. For me as a captain trying to deal with all the uncertainty during lockdown – the uncertainty of furloughing and all the bits and pieces around salaries etc – I can’t speak highly enough of how we as a squad have dealt with it. I think we understand the position rugby is in and the position the wider public are in and it’s up to us now to focus on what we can control, which is getting back playing and gaining some sense of normality in rugby.

Wasps never managed to build after reaching the 2017 Premiership final, so how confident are you of becoming a top four side again?

We probably built towards that final and put a lot into that year in terms of the personnel we had. Some of those personnel were on short-term contracts and that’s why it’s important now for us to have young players on longer term contracts, so we genuinely can build some longevity into this team. We understand what a tough league it is but we do want to compete at the right end of the table year-on-year and we’ve got some quality players who believe it can be done. When we get back playing in a fortnight we’ve got nine games, with Northampton to start with, which is a pretty important game with us being fourth and fifth in the table. But nine games is quite a long time, it’s not the sprint some people think, so our aim is to be consistently good over this next period to give ourselves a shot at the play-offs.

The Six Nations will be completed this October, looking forward to representing England again?

It’s good for a historic tournament like the Six Nations to get completed and for there to be a winner in the record books, so everyone will be competing for places again and that competition across all positions has been the bedrock of England’s success over the last few years. We’re all pushing each other and that’s not going to change, so my focus is on being the best captain and player I can be for Wasps and then hopefully taking that into the international arena.

Despite losing the opening game to France, England responded with Six Nations wins against Scotland, Ireland and Wales. What shape do you feel the side is in?

We were pleased with how we finished. The standard of the tournament is massive and the expectation to perform is always there, so I felt we did that and winning the Triple Crown was a good achievement. Hopefully, we’ll get the opportunity against Italy to finish the job with another title.

Do you feel the World Cup hangover is now banished?

The whole World Cup experience was fantastic and I loved being part of it. We were all gutted with the way it ended and I’m sure the whole country was as well, but in terms of a hangover I actually thought we went into the Six Nations in a good place. France in Paris is always a tough game to start a competition with and they proved in their subsequent games that they were a pretty decent side. It wasn’t the start we wanted but after that we showed more of what we were about.

Matt Proudfoot came in from South Africa as England forwards coach, what did you make of him?

Scrum chief: England assistant coach Matt Proudfoot won the World Cup with the Springboks last autumn. Getty Images

Matt obviously arrived with huge respect having just won the World Cup with the Springboks and we all understood his pedigree and what to expect. Given the competition across all the forward positions, it was exciting to work with him. He’ll see things in a slightly different way with a fresh pair of eyes and having kept a pretty solid group of players together over the last three or four years, that fresh set of eyes has been positive. The handover period with Matt and Steve Borthwick worked well and they’re both highly established coaches in their own right.

Knowing Steve Borthwick so well, what do you think he’ll bring to rivals Leicester?

It’ll be interesting to see how quickly we start to see his blueprint. I really enjoyed working with him and I’m sure it won’t take long. From what I know of Steve and the recruitment Leicester have done with their forward signings, you need a tough pack in this league and that’s certainly what they’ll be striving to be. His standards are very high so they’ll look to build around that and get back to what the Leicester DNA always has been, based on a very brutal forward pack. 

From an England selection perspective, you must be pleased to see the back of George Kruis?

Ha! George is a good friend of mine and he always had it in the back of his mind to go abroad at some stage. It was case of ‘If not now, then when?’ so it’s a great opportunity for him and his partner to live in Japan. I think we all loved Japan last year with the culture, food and sights, so for him to have that chance to go back and play there is pretty exciting. George may be going but we’ve never been short of competition in England and I’ll never take anything for granted. I’ve been very fortunate to be around the England set-up for as long as I have and play so many games, so I’d like to think that I’ve shown in my attitude around training and every time I play for my country that I definitely don’t take it for granted. Nothing changes there no matter what happens elsewhere. That competition has always been there so I’ve got to keep showing what I can do.

Would you ever consider moving abroad yourself?

I’ve got a young family who are settled and while you never say never because you don’t know what opportunities might come along, playing in the Premiership is a privilege for me. While the opportunity to go overseas is exciting and you could get some personal growth out of it as a player and a person, a lot of decisions I make now are always going to be with my family at heart and what’s right for them. In terms of the next few years, I’m pretty locked in at Wasps.

Bet you didn’t know that along with Ben Kay, you’ve made the joint fifth-highest number of starts at lock (48) for England behind Martin Johnson, Wade Dooley, Danny Grewcock and Courtney Lawes?

Crikey, that’s not bad! There’s a pretty talented pool of second rows there. Like I said earlier, it’s always been a massive privilege to represent my country. People say I’ve maybe not started as much over the last few years as I’d like, but for me every time I’m involved or called into a 45-man squad I’m a very proud Englishman. I love being part of it and the fact I’ve played so many games and started a fair few of them is humbling. It’ll never get boring, that’s for sure, and at 29 I still feel I’ve got a lot more to offer. The 2023 World Cup is a long-term objective and although World Cups are a mark in the sand and there tend to be squad changes in between, I believe I’ll still be young enough at that stage. There’s so much rugby to be played between now and then but I’m excited about what’s to come and while I felt pretty good before this break, mentally and physically I’m in an even better place now.

Do you allow yourself to dream of a Lions tour as well?

It’s always something people think about and I’ve got good friends who’ve had positive experiences of going on those tours. I’ve always grown up desperate to play for England and then maybe take that extra step, so the opportunity to go to South Africa would be fantastic. But it’s not something I can give too much thought to now because the next few months are going to be full-on.

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