Courtney Lawes: ‘It was difficult to get into rugby if you didn’t go to a nicer school’

Outside on the Pennyhill Park terrace on a mellow lunchtime, two days after captaining his country for the first time, Courtney Lawes is pondering the three words that best describe his character. “One would definitely be chilled. Another one would be competitive … I’m very competitive.” And the third? “What’s a word for fun-loving? Optimistic? Yeah, I’d say I’m quite optimistic.”

He is certainly grateful for the relative peace. With four kids under eight at home, he is struggling to recall when he and his wife, Jess, last sat down for any length of time. Since leading England to victory over Tonga last Saturday, though, he has also been feeling a quiet surge of pride. “It’s such an honour to captain your country. My parents take things in their stride, like me, but Mum has been in touch saying how many family messages she’s had. I think everyone was pretty happy.”

And why not? With Owen Farrell ruled out, England’s 11th hour Captain Marvel played as if supercharged by his new responsibilities. His covering dive to prevent Telusa Veainu scoring in the right corner, in particular, was so impressive the former red rose lock Ben Kay called it “one of the greatest try-saving tackles Twickenham has ever seen”.

If Sam Underhill’s intervention in 2018 to stop Wales’s Scott Williams and Josh Lewsey’s last-gasp hit on South Africa’s Jean De Villiers in 2006 were similarly memorable, neither was the work of a 6ft 7in 32-year-old playing his 88th England Test. “To be honest I didn’t really think about it. I just got on my bike and Freddie Steward slowed him down enough for me to get there. It was more instinct than anything else.”

Modest is another word the flanker should consider. Even with Farrell back to face Australia, it really is time that Lawes was more widely celebrated. As an athlete, remarkably, he still feels he is improving and off the pitch he has never been shy to be his own man. “You should accept everyone, right?” he murmurs, discussing whether some more tattoos might have helped Will Carling’s image back in his England captaincy days. “As long as you’re a good person I think you should be accepted for who you are.”

There is much, much more to big Courtney than a few heavily inked limbs, a penchant for crunching tackles and a love of reggae and R&B. Before going on this summer’s British & Irish Lions tour – where he started every Test – he was involved with the Centre for Social Justice thinktank and spoke in favour – “in whatever form it comes” – of a stable family unit and extending the school day to give pupils more time for physical exercise. Not everyone on social media approved but he remains unfazed. “If people ask me a question I’m going to give an honest answer. I’m not really bothered about who that offends because that’s my opinion. If other people don’t share it, no problem at all.”

Straight talking comes naturally. It was not unknown for his mother, Valerie, a prison officer, to return home from a tough shift with a few bruises. His father, Linford, emigrated to Britain from Jamaica as a youngster and once worked as a nightclub bouncer. Fight the Lawes and, as the Clash always warned, the Lawes will win. “For a lot of my childhood Mum was working. Dad would bounce at night and look after me during the day. I’m very similar to my dad and that’s probably a big reason why. He did a good job bringing me up and I’m very thankful for the way it shaped me.”

Growing up in Northampton also taught him about class. Where he came from, despite Franklin’s Gardens being nearby, rugby was often seen as someone else’s game. “At one point it was difficult to get into rugby if you didn’t go to a nicer school. I would never have played if I hadn’t gone to Northampton school for boys. Rugby wasn’t the best in terms of people from working-class and middle-class backgrounds having access to it.”

Which is why Lawes becoming England’s captain, even for a week, should be celebrated. The current men’s squad is more diverse than it has ever been and the 117kg forward believes any naysayers should update their prejudices. “If people haven’t been to a game they shouldn’t pretend to know what it’s like. At least go and see it before you criticise. As long as rugby keeps its integrity and core values that give working-class people something good they can buy into – culture, respect and hard work – it can really help people.”

How much longer, though, can Lawes realistically stay at his sporting peak? He made his Test debut against Australia 12 years ago this month and now lives in the Northamptonshire countryside 10 minutes away from his friend Dylan Hartley – “the skipper I enjoyed playing under most” – whose England career ended at 32. Lawes, who turns 33 in February, knows he cannot go on for ever. “When you’re younger you can train like a nutter the whole week and be fine at the weekend. When you get older you can’t quite do that.”

There is also no avoiding rugby’s potential longer-term medical risks. “It’s tough, man. What’s your body’s going to be like when you’re 40? I’ve played for years and I’ve been hit on the head a few times. Of course you think about it. At the end of the day, though, I don’t have to play rugby. If I think it’s too dangerous I can not play. It’s your choice. Rugby’s a great game and that needs to be appreciated. The safer we can make it the better … but it’s a physical, brutal game.”

The good news, for now, is that he still feels able to make a serious top-level impact. “Even though I’m probably the oldest here I’m not tailing off. I’ve always worked hard and been very willing to put my body on the line. It means people can rely on you to front up when the big games turn up.

“Where can this England team go? I think we’re on the cusp of finding something new. A team that’s not just here because it’s a great honour or for the money but because it’s a good place to be. That’s the kind of environment you need if you want to win anything, especially a World Cup.” Three words to describe big Courtney? Not. Finished. Yet.