By Neale Harvey
Joe Launchbury insists his seventh match-up with New Zealand enforcer Brodie Retallick would be no walkover.
Wasps skipper Launchbury admits being impressed by Retallick’s stunning recent display against Australia – an 80-minute masterclass which showcased his mastery of tight play, running and offloading skills and underlined his importance to the dominant All Blacks.
However, Launchbury was far from cowed by what he saw as he attempts to nail down a Red Rose jersey in the face of “frightening” competition ahead of November’s long-awaited showdown with New Zealand – and a potential head-to-head reunion with old foe Retallick, right.
Having previously faced the Kiwi at age group level and five times in senior Tests, including the 2012 victory at Twickenham, Launchbury told The Rugby Paper: “It’s a big challenge around the corner, for sure, and the blend someone like Retallick has in his game is really good.
“It’s easy to see the eye-catching stuff that a forward can potentially do, such as the ball-carrying and big tackles in the wide channels that people get so excited about. But what he has is that dual-purpose to his game. He can do all the glamorous stuff but doesn’t neglect any of his tight responsibilities, either at the set-piece or around the breakdown.
“It’s what’s expected of the modern second row now and you can’t just sit in either camp; you’ve got to do a bit of both and I actually think second row is a really exciting position now.
“While a lot of people wouldn’t want to play it, I think it’s now got a good blend of the unseen tight play and set-piece, but also the stuff in the loose that gets fans off their seats.
“The offloading game is probably the bit I enjoyed most earlier in my career, but with the more I’ve played and the more experienced I’ve got, I’ve really worked hard on my set-piece and the importance of that, especially at international level, cannot be underestimated.
“At Test level you don’t play in the front five without a strong set-piece and that’s something I’ve looked to improve upon without losing the other stuff in my game.”
A 2-1 series defeat in South Africa was a bitter pill for England. However, Launchbury emerged with credit after overcoming a calf injury that kept him out of the first Test loss in Johannesburg to feature strongly in Bloemfontein and Cape Town as England salvaged pride.
He said: “First and foremost, on the back of a poor Six Nations, it was important that we enjoyed our rugby and enjoyed being there and getting stuck into what was a really hard series.
“I love touring, it’s such a fantastic part of rugby going away to a country with a group of guys and doing everything together for three or four weeks – and we did enjoy it.
“The early results weren’t what we’d hoped for but getting that win in Cape Town showed what we were about. It’s only the fourth time an England team has won in South Africa so it shows how hard it is and we were pleased to come back with that result in our pocket.
“For me individually, I was injured for the first Test after doing my calf just after we got out there, but I was really pleased with the way I managed to get myself fit and contributed.
“It felt like a good way to cap a year I’d been pretty happy with and the fact I put in better performances as the year went on will hopefully stand me in good stead.”
With George Kruis and Courtney Lawes returning to a fold that includes fellow tourists Maro Itoje, Nick Isiekwe and Jonny Hill, Launchbury faces fierce competition for his place.
The list of budding England second rows also includes Charlie Ewels, Dave Attwood, Will Spencer and Calum Green, while the imposing, 18-year-old Saracen Joel Kpoku – a potentially souped-up version of Launchbury – attended the most recent Red Rose training camp.
“The list is very impressive,” Launchbury concedes. “Guys like Joel Kpoku are obviously young, but it’s frightening how at their age they’re athletically ready to play men’s rugby.
“In terms of competition, though, it’s great and in a World Cup year I guarantee there’ll be more people putting their hands up. But it’s not something I worry about, I’m just trying to be the best player I can be for Wasps and if opportunities arise, then fantastic.”
Launchbury will go the extra mile, adding: “You’re constantly looking to evolve as an athlete and I’ve had a big focus on trying to improve my strength over the last 12-18 months.
“I’m quite a big, heavy guy naturally but I wanted to work hard in the gym and it’s part of my game I feel I can really develop and hopefully exploit over the coming years.”