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Soft-spoken Joe Launchbury out to show England’s hard edge in Scotland

The problem for Joe Launchbury has always been one of perception. At first Eddie Jones was not convinced – and neither was Warren Gatland when selecting his Lions squad – but as Launchbury prepares to win his 50th cap against Scotland on Saturday there will be few players more certain of their name on England’s teamsheet.
For all England’s second-row riches, no one is playing better than Launchbury, who delivered a supreme performance against Wales last time out. It will have been all the more satisfying considering Gatland’s snub last summer, but it was hardly surprising – Launchbury is one of those locks who so rarely lets his standards slip.
Still, when Jones arrived as coach he was not sure about Launchbury’s lineout ability and privately held concerns over whether he had enough steel about him. Gatland’s reasons for omitting the Wasps captain, meanwhile, seemed to be that he did not have the necessary bite to take on the All Blacks.
It is an unfair brush with which to tar Launchbury but as a clean-cut, softly spoken second-row there has been a perception that he is not hard enough. That he gets through plenty of work but does not leave enough of a dent on the opposition. Consider, though, that there were five British & Irish Lions locks at Twickenham when England played Wales and consider, too, that not one came close to Launchbury’s level of performance.
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“Myself and [the England forwards coach] Steve [Borthwick] have always thought that he is a good player,” Jones said. “The area we had our concern around was his lineout jumping ability. He has worked really hard on that area. His general play has always been outstanding. If I look back at the 2015 World Cup his general play against Wales was absolutely outstanding. But he has not been an outstanding lineout jumper and he has worked really hard in that area. Now that’s not an area to hold him back. He is held in very high regard by us.”
Launchbury should take great satisfaction in how he has changed perceptions and there is no little irony that last summer’s trip to Argentina accelerated his transition to a senior member of England’s side. He could have been forgiven for going through the motions while so many of his team-mates were taking on the All Blacks, but Jones challenged him to “take his career forward” and as Launchbury says: “I always felt like I was one of the younger players until Argentina in the summer.”
He also agrees with Jones that the lineout is his area of most significant improvement. “I certainly wasn’t blase with it before, I always worked really hard at it but perhaps didn’t really understand what it took to be an international front-five,” Launchbury adds. “I did enjoy the set piece but didn’t give it the full attention it deserved. Credit to Eddie – and Steve Borthwick, who’s been fantastic with me in the lineout, trying to improve me, to upskill me. Steve is the first forwards coach I’ve had who has been a second-row. The others have been props and they’re fantastic at what they do but that attention to me as a jumper, Steve’s brought that in which for me has been fantastic.”
Against Wales Launchbury topped the chart in both tackles and carries when he was replaced with 12 minutes to go while he also produced that outrageous offload for Jonny May’s second try – the kind that would still have us drooling had it come from an All Black. In addition, without Billy Vunipola or Nathan Hughes against Wales and Italy, the ball-carrying responsibilities have been shared and it is an additional responsibility Launchbury is relishing. “I like to carry as much as I can for this team and we have a lot of licence as a tight five to get involved off No9 and get the team on the front foot and I really enjoy that,” he said.
“Maybe when you miss a carrier like those guys it is always a loss, but in a way it can give you a strength as well as you’re not just looking to one guy to carry but three or four to punch holes, so we will use that as strength and get as many as possible carrying.”
England’s mantra through this Six Nations campaign so far has been one of “hunting” and, on the pitch, that translated as one of their best defensive displays against Wales eight days ago, with Launchbury at its heart. Against Scotland, England’s defence is again set to be pushed to its limit with Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg spearheading their gung-ho approach under Gregor Townsend.
Scotland arrived at Twickenham last year with a spring in their step, although they were duly sent packing in a 61-21 defeat.
“Teams are chancing their arm and trying to play attractive rugby. It’s a great spectacle and great for rugby but what it can do, if the pressure’s put on you in the right way, is cause some problems,” Launchbury says. “Defensively we felt we were very strong in that area [against Wales], we didn’t let Wales play how they’d like to play and against Scotland, hopefully it will be the same.
“I expect a stern test and a strong Scottish side – whether that’s a backlash, or the standard of this competition. We don’t expect anyone to have an off-day. For us it’s important to keep improving. We’ve got two results but as you guys like to say, we’ve still got a lot of improvement to make.”

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