Courtney Lawes on facing down the haters, fighting for family values and refusing to take the knee

February 16, 2024. Series 7. Episode 82

In this episode we are joined by one of rugby’s finest international players; Northampton Saints legend, British and Irish Lion and former England Captain Courtney Lawes.

When Courtney decided to retire from international rugby after last year’s World Cup, there was some shock – not least because he was still in the form of his life. But the Dad of four was clear that the time had come to be at home with his young family, not on tour or training with his England teammates.

That belief in the importance of family is central to Courtney. Having seen up close how life can go wrong without that stable background, he is a passionate supporter of the Centre for Social Justice and their work promoting the importance of family and the value of sport.

Serious injuries, a result of Courtney’s uncompromising style of play, have led to long periods on the sidelines. The uncompromising opinions that he holds off the pitch have brought vitriol on social media most famously when he dared to offer a view around Marcus Rashford’s campaigning.

His resilience in those difficult moments, on and off the pitch, is just one of the revealing and useful discussions we have in this episode. My thanks to Courtney for joining me.


Stream/buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning:
Some Velvet Morning Website:
Your Daily Practice: Sleep by Myndstream:

Host – Andy Coulson
CWC team: Jane Sankey, Louise Difford, Zach Ellis and Mabel Pickering
With special thanks to Ioana Barbu and the brilliant people at Global

For all PR and guest approaches please contact – [email protected]


Full Transcript 

Courtney Lawes:               [0:00:00] Marcus Rashford had just secured food stamps for you know, underprivileged, making sure people didn’t go hungry basically, and I thought that was obviously fantastic. But I thought we could also- it might be a good idea to talk about a few of the ways people get themselves in that position, and try to solve or help that issue as well.

Honestly I don’t think timed it well, and probably worded it quite poorly as well, but yes, I landed myself in a bit of trouble.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:00:33] Welcome back to Crisis What Crisis, the podcast that aims to guide you towards a more resilient life and whatever it might throw at you. If this is your first time with us, then please do hit subscribe wherever you’re watching or listening, it really does help make sure that these, I hope useful, conversations are shared as widely as possible.

My guest today is one of the finest rugby players of his generation. Former England Captain, Courtney Lawes. 105 caps for England, 3 Six Nations Championships, 12 appearances for the British & Irish Lions, and a Premiership title with his hometown club Northampton Saints. A truly stellar sporting career.

When Courtney decided to retire from international ruby after last year’s World Cup there was some shock, not least because he was still in the form of his life. But in characteristic style Courtney was not for turning. He was clear that the time had come to be at home with his young family, not on tour or training with his England teammates.

That belief in the importance of family is central to Courtney, who grew up in the shadow of Northampton’s Frankin’s Garden Stadium. Having seen up close how life can go wrong without that stable background, Courtney is a passionate support of the Centre for Social Justice and their work promoting the importance of family and the value of sport.

Serious injuries, a result of Courtney’s uncompromising style of play, have led to long periods on the sidelines. The uncompromising opinions that he holds off the pitch have brought unwarranted vitriol on social media. His resilience in those difficult moments on and off the pitch is something we will chat about today, along with his views on leadership, that constant desire for self-improvement, and how he has managed to stay motivated at the highest level for so long.

Courtney Lawes, welcome to Crisis What Crisis.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:02:17] Thank you very much.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:02:18] How are you?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:02:19] I’m great thank you, I’m really good.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:02:21] I’ve got to ask. The weekend, how did it feel to be at the start of a Six Nations and to not be playing?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:02:31] Yes, it was strange, especially being fit. Like, the last couple of Six Nations I’ve not been fit at the start, so I’ve been forced to watch. But this time choosing to watch was pretty strange. Because the playing bit is what you love, it’s why you do it. It’s all the stuff that goes with it that makes it a tough job, really, all the training. And especially when you’re a leader in the group you’re doing a lot of meetings, making sure that the team is in the right place to go and play the game, and you’re worried about a lot of different moving parts.

So I didn’t miss that too much but I did miss being out there on the pitch with the boys.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:03:08] Did you ping in a couple of motivational messages ahead of the game to any of your mates?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:03:13] Yes, I spoke to- well, Gengey pulled out late but I spoke to him, and then I just pinged Dingers and Fin a message just to say congratulations, because they were picking up their first caps and obviously they’re at the club, so that was great to see.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:03:28] Superb. A bit of shouting at the TV during the game, or not?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:03:32] I wasn’t too bad. I try not to get too emotional about it, but obviously I was- first half, you know, working through some stuff, some issues. But I think the boys held it together really well. Obviously the leadership group and Jamie is doing a great job, because it would have been really easy to go completely off-script and try to change everything to fix the problems, but they stuck to their guns, stuck to what they wanted to do, and eventually came away with a pretty convincing win.

I know it was tight by the end, but they scored in the last minute so I would say it was more convincing than people give them credit.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:04:12] Than the score suggests, yes.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:04:13] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:04:15] Courtney, you made the decision to retire from England, which as I say took a fair few people by surprise, for one reason; to spend more time with your family. When I explain that you spent thirteen years I think without ever once being at home for your own birthday, that gives a bit of context to that statement.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:04:33] Yes, exactly.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:04:35] A tough decision though, right? And obviously a family decision. Just tell me about how you got there, and when the moment in your mind just kind of, “Yes okay, I’m going to do this.”

Courtney Lawes:               [0:04:48] Honestly, I’d been thinking about it for a while, even probably the last World Cup in 2019 I was thinking about do I want to keep playing for England or do I need to be there for my family? But I still had quite a lot of things to achieve. I wanted to get 100 caps for England, I’d been on the road to that for a long time so that was really a huge milestone for me.

And then obviously if you’re going to do that- I mean, I made 100 caps just before the World Cup, so you might as well go ahead and do the next World Cup cycle. So yes, I made the decision to do another World Cup cycle, and then I guess from there it was actually relatively easy to say I’ve kind of achieved what I wanted to achieve. Obviously we didn’t win the World Cup but we gave it everything we had.

And so you know, 4 World Cups, 105 tests and 14 years playing for England is probably a good enough stint and now I want to make sure I’m there for my family, kind of thing.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:05:55] You are the master of the understatement. It was a good enough stint.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:05:58] It was a good enough stint yes, you can say that.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:06:01] What was the process, out of interest? Because I think this is useful for people who are trying to ponder a change in their life. Because that’s what this is for you, right? It’s just the beginning of a new phase.

What was the process that you went through? Did you sit, have a lot of conversations? Was it something that you kind of would think about but go back and return to? Or was just actually, you know, “Now is the moment. Now it feels right,” and it really was very clear in your mind? Or did you rely on others to kind of get there?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:06:30] I spoke about it with my missus, mainly. And I think my mum and dad a little bit, just talking about- yes, I guess my thoughts at the previous World Cup. I was always very determined to do another cycle and get to another World Cup, and as soon as I got there and achieved that I was actually pretty content and it became quite an easy decision.

So that was obviously great for me. And then the way we did it, I really couldn’t have given any more to the team and that tournament. That South Africa game was so tight, so tight. But you know, you could see what it meant to us and I was really happy to- even though we lost, have that as my last game for England and yes, bow out.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:07:25] Did anyone try and dissuade you?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:07:31] Since, definitely. And I suppose at the time as well, a little bit. Steve was very understanding. You know, he sat me down and was like, you know, “What are you thinking?” And I just said, “Look, I need to be there for my family.” And he’s a family man, he absolutely gets it.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:07:49] You played with him, right?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:07:50] I played with him, yes. He was Skipper when I first got into camp. So yes, and then played against him, I think the last game he ever played was the Prem final 2014 that we won very narrowly.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:08:09] It’s good that he didn’t hold it against you.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:08:11] He didn’t hold it against me. But yes, we have a lot of history. And then obviously as well he coached England under Eddie for a good few years as well. So yes, we had a pretty decent relationship and you know, he respected my decision and hasn’t been tempted to try and dissuade me out of it just yet. And he won’t be now the Six Nations has started, but no, I respect that from him.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:08:40] The issue really was obviously just one of not being around. And even when you were around, you’ve talked a bit about this, the inability to really kind of settle with your family because you’re then immediately onto another cycle.

Just tell me a bit about the challenge of that.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:08:58] Yes, It’s always tough because you never really feel like you can get your house in order. Because you know as soon as you get it in order it’s about to come tumbling down again because you’re about to go away. So you almost don’t bother, you just try and get through, enjoy your time at home, put pieces in place where you can, but generally you know that it all goes out the window when you go home. Because you’ve got four kids and your missus is on her own trying to look after them all.

So yes, it’s very disruptive. Obviously the kids found it very disruptive, their behaviour definitely changes when you leave home and you’re not around, and obviously they’re-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:09:42] That was clear to you both?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:09:45] Yes, that was clear. And also they are missing you, they want to know when you’re back and all that kind of stuff, and it just gets harder and harder the older they get. So yes, being at home.

You would come back from a tour, say Australia tour, and that’s probably the longest time you get at home is from July to November, where you’ve just had a tour. But it always just comes around so quickly, and then you’ll do the Autumn Nations at the end of October until the start of December, and then you’ll get back for two months. Not even, really, about seven weeks, and then you’re away for another eight weeks, and then you’ve got a tour at the end of the season again. So it’s just, yes.

And that’s without a World Cup cycle or a Lions cycle, which obviously both I’ve been a part of. And that’s another- they are both nine weeks on the other side of the world, and that’s every two years you’re doing that. So yes, it’s incredibly disruptive.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:10:46] Incredibly disruptive. And also you’re not really- it’s not just about where you are, it’s where you head is as well, right? And I imagine that at that level your mind is never really kind of properly switching off, is it? From England and-

Courtney Lawes:               [0:10:59] I’m actually not too bad at that kind of stuff.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:11:01] You can compartmentalise that?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:11:03] Yes, I’m pretty good at switching off.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:11:06] Tell me how you do that.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:11:07] I don’t think it’s a conscious thing I’ve ever had to learn or go out of my way to do. I’ve always been a pretty take it as it comes guy, try to be pretty relaxed to be honest. And I always try and enjoy my time away so I can make sure that I enjoy it when I come back. And you know, if you spend all your time away just missing your family it would be hell. And I think it would make it harder when you come back to actually enjoy being back with your family.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:11:46] The family issue, Courtney, that absence from home was something that you knew a fair bit about. You’ve said that for a lot of your childhood your mum Valerie was working as a prison officer. A much tougher job than yours.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:12:04] Yes, much.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:12:05] Considerable.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:12:06] I wouldn’t tell her that, but yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:12:08] Tell me a bit about your childhood. Because your dad Linford worked nights, I think he was a bouncer for a while.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:12:14] A bouncer, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:12:17] That meant that he spent a lot of time with you during the day, which you loved. You’re very tight with your dad aren’t you, you’re very close to your dad.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:12:20] Yes, very much.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:12:23] Tell me a bit about your childhood, tell me a bit about your mum and dad.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:12:25] I suppose it’s by pure coincidence that there’s almost nine years between me and my little brother, so it meant that I was raised, you know, Mum worked shifts so she was around a lot of the time, but mainly Dad was the one especially in my early years to kind of bring me up. And I’m very much like my dad. The opposite is kind of true for Cam, whereby Dad picked up a day job and so Mum was the primary caregiver for Cam, and he’s a proper mummy’s boy kind of thing.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:13:03] Right, okay.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:13:05] We get on really well obviously, me and my little brother, but yes, we’re quite different characters.

So yes, my early days were spending time with Dad.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:13:16] Tell me a bit about him. He came over from Jamaica?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:13:19] Yes, he was 12 when he came over from Jamaica. He is the oldest of six, including himself, so he has obviously had quite a bit of responsibility with all of his siblings, and growing up. Obviously Britain was a very different place when he came over in the ‘’60s I think, or ‘70s.

But no, I suppose he had his troubles the same as everybody else. But essentially he loves it here, he loves Britain. You know, integrated thoroughly and sees himself as very much an English man.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:13:58] And the work ethic that you’ve clearly got from you dad and your mum, right? I mean, she was-

Courtney Lawes:               [0:14:05] Yes, both of them.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:14:07] I mean, the jokes aside, that is a tough job.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:14:10] Yes, definitely. They both worked incredibly hard to provide for me and my little brother. We didn’t have loads of money growing up but we were never really without, which was great. We never went hungry, and that’s down to their hard work and you know, putting in the hours to make sure the food was on the table.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:14:33] And stability. Emotional stability.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:14:35] Exactly. And it’s much easier to do when you’re in a pair. And that is the bare bones of it. Anything in life is going to be harder on your own, and that is just how it is.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:14:47] So, born in Hackney, grew up in Northampton, a stone’s throw actually from the rugby stadium Franklin’s Gardens.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:14:52] Not far, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:14:54] That become such a big part of your life. But not the case as a young lad, rugby wasn’t really on your radar.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:15:01] I’d honestly play anything. Genuinely I’d play anything that I could pick up and do. I was mad for it, mad for sports. I suppose I like every child wanted to be a footballer, but never, never understood really how slim a chance you have to become a footballer. So you know, everybody wants to be a footballer until they realise that almost nobody becomes a footballer, kind of thing.

But I just wanted to play sports, have fun, and really enjoyed it. So yes, I’d play anything I could get my hands on. But I didn’t have access to rugby because my school didn’t play it.

It was lower, middle, upper school when I was growing up, in Northampton. So they didn’t play it in my middle school, and if I hadn’t have gone to Northampton School for Boys, which is a bit like a grammar school, so you don’t have to pay to go there but it’s a good school, a really good school. And they are one of the only kind of state schools in Northampton, if not the only state school in Northampton, to actually play rugby.

So if I hadn’t have gone there I literally would have never- I wouldn’t have even known what rugby was, really, until it got a bit more popular probably.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:16:14] Arriving there, that wasn’t part of the thinking? That wasn’t something that you were planning to do?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:16:19] No, not at all. I went there because it’s a great school, it provides a really good education. And it was by coincidence that- I’d tried out for the football team, I was playing tennis there, I think I tried out for the basketball team as well, and then they were like, “There’s rugby trials, do you want to do that?” I was like, “Yes, I’ll do anything.” And then just picked it up, loved it, and it kind of wrote itself.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:16:43] Courtney, let’s get back to family. You have a younger brother Cameron, who you mentioned, two half-siblings from your dad’s previous relationship. Your half-brother fell into- you’ve talked about this previously, but fell into drug-related trouble as a young man, which ended I think with him going to prison. Apart from anything else, that must have been incredibly difficult for your dad. It must have been very difficult for the family.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:17:07] Yes of course, definitely. The thing is, Dad was still around for [Len 0:17:12] but because they weren’t together obviously it’s very destabilising. And you know, a lot of kids grow up not even knowing their dad, unfortunately, and you see what a difference- well, I obviously saw what a difference it makes just having that structure, that stability and that foundation in place for you.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:17:31] Yes. I mean, that is a common theme in prison. Lads who don’t know their dad, no connection at all.

Obviously you were young, but that’s obviously been a formative thing for you, hasn’t it? Because you’re seeing the difference clearly, obviously being grateful for the fact that you had two parents who were there for you continually. But it’s been something that’s really kind of impacted you.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:18:01] Yes definitely. And look, you don’t realise it until you get a bit older and you kind of understand, and obviously I had that kind of anecdotal evidence for myself, and then you kind of do a bit of looking into it, you do a bit of research, and you start to realise that actually this actually matches up quite a lot with quite a lot of society.

And as you said, what people go through and the fact that some ridiculous number like eighty-odd percent of men in prison come from fatherless homes, you know, you put two and two together.

And look, I just want to help kind of spread the message and try and help people to make good decisions, because essentially that’s what helps you create the life you want.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:18:50] Yes. Your brother came through, we should say.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:18:52] Yes, he’s doing good.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:18:53] Got himself back on track.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:18:54] He’s doing good. Obviously we’re always going to make sure we’re there for him, but it’s great to see him. He’s obviously doing well now; he’s got a job and he’s working hard for himself, which is great.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:19:11] Fantastic. Your mum, did she bring the job home at all, if you like, when you were growing up? Did you understand what the job was? Was it part of the sort of family conversation in any way?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:19:24] No, I don’t think it was. I can remember a couple of occasions of Mum coming home pretty bruised and whatnot, where there had been scraps in prison and all that kind of stuff. Yes, some scary stuff happens, and she’s working at Gartree at the minute which houses-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:19:43] That’s a proper prison.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:19:44] Yes, some life-timers kind of thing. She actually- I think it was a couple of years ago now, she had me into the prison to meet some of them. So some of them that had been well-behaved, basically she wanted to reward them, so I said I’d go in and speak to them. I was sat down chatting to them, and it was actually crazy that a lot of them seemed really normal, quite quiet a lot of them, and stuff like that.

I didn’t realise that I was sitting in a room with murderers, kind of thing. You just would not put it to them from being around them, but yes, it was-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:20:25] What was the conversation?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:20:26] We spoke a lot about rugby and all that kind of stuff. A lot about strength and conditioning actually because obviously they were mad into it, so we spoke quite a lot about that. And then obviously I was asking like, “How do you feel like you’re going to go when- do you think about getting out?” and all that kind of stuff. But not realising that a lot of them are actually not going to get out of the prison.

So yes, it’s tough to find out after that they’re going to spend their life in there, it’s incredibly sad.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:21:01] Yes. And the challenge, the psychological challenge of that. Obviously we’ve got to set aside the reasons why they might be there, let’s put that to one side.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:21:08] Of course.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:21:10] But just on the- how do you approach the idea of a life sentence, psychologically, is incredibly tough.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:21:20] Incredibly tough.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:21:22] That’s why your mum’s work is so fascinating and important.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:21:25] Yes, and so dangerous. Exactly.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:21:31] Courtney. An incredible rise through the game. When you look back at those early years of your playing career, what was it do you think that was motivating you? Because you do have this reputation for being, “Well, whatever comes comes.” For being pretty relaxed about it all. But there was obviously a fire burning, right?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:21:49] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:21:51] There was a proper fire burning. You mentioned there when you first started playing rugby you were running around nailing everyone; that was instinctive to you really, right?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:21:57] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:21:59] What was it? When you look back at those very, very early years, what is it that’s kind of lighting that fire, if I can put it that way?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:22:12] I’m a pretty proud man, proud to a fault I would say. And I am incredibly competitive, even though I come across quite relaxed. Just in life in general I don’t see the point in doing something unless you’re going to be the best at it, or at least try and be the best.

So that’s always, always going to be the fire inside me. It’s definitely the reason why I’ve been able to prolong my kind of career and I guess my playing standards throughout my career up until this point, and I’m constantly pushing to be a better version of myself and be the best player there is. I never will be now at this point, but I will chase that to the death, for sure.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:23:14] So you’re hard on yourself, you’re proud, but what’s the internal commentary? We’ll get on to the tough moments including some of the injuries, and you’ve had plenty of those, some pretty serious ones. But in those early days what’s the commentary? Obviously you want to play for England, I know you had a coach who told you- I think you had a coach who told you to say it out loud, right?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:23:37] Yes, that was Norman Barker when I was young, very young, I must have been about 14, 13.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:23:43] And he made you say, “I’m going to play for England.”

Courtney Lawes:               [0:23:45] Yes. Honestly, I think- I suppose I got to the point I was until about 21 just for the love of the game. I just loved playing rugby. Well, playing any sports really, but I loved playing rugby. And obviously I’d been fortunate in terms of my athleticism, and honestly my ability to learn and respond to feedback is probably one of the most important traits you can have as a young player, and certainly one of my better attributes was being able to take feedback and apply it really quickly and therefore develop your game very quickly.

So that’s how I kind of burst onto the scene, was kind of the love of the game and the ability to apply good coaching feedback kind of thing.

And so I broke into the England team at about 20, and then honestly I don’t think I pushed myself hard enough from kind of 21 to 25, 26. And it ended up I actually started playing pretty poorly.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:24:55] You were still playing for England.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:24:56] I was still playing for England.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:24:57] Injuries aside, you never fell out the team.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:24:59] No, yes, I was-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:25:00] This is what I mean about you being quite hard on yourself. It’s interesting, because you’ve obviously-

Courtney Lawes:               [0:25:04] I know, but I wasted that time. I feel like I wasted that time and-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:25:06] But you played for England throughout.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:25:07] Yes, I played for England throughout. Look, I was in the squad but I was in and out of the team in terms of on the bench and starting. I wasn’t a nailed on starter but I was just too happy with where I was, too one-dimensional, and ultimately not pushing myself hard enough. And it wasn’t until Eddie came in and basically gave me an ultimatum that I actually, you know-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:25:33] This is Eddie Jones arrives, pulls you into a room and says, “If you want to play for me, this is what I’m going to need.”

Courtney Lawes:               [0:25:40] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:25:41] Tell me about that conversation, what did he say to you?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:25:44] Well, Eddie I think always saw me as a good kind of test player. I wasn’t playing great for Saints, I wasn’t playing badly, and I think I was in a place where some games I’d actually play quite well and I’d get Man of the Match and all that kind of stuff, and then the next game or two or three I’d play quite poorly.

And so while I had the ability, I wasn’t playing nearly consistently enough, and I wasn’t playing consistently for Saints. And I wasn’t, again, pushing myself hard enough. And he, I remember he called me and he was like, “Look, I don’t think you’re playing great for Saints but you’re a test match player so I want you in camp.”

And then I played Italy, I had a pretty average game I’d say, and it’s quite hard to play Italy, especially in Rome, but yes, I definitely didn’t have my best game. And then he kind of dropped me from team and was like, “Look, you’re not- we need more from you, basically. We need you hitting people. One minute you’re carrying well-”

Andy Coulson:                   [0:26:45] And it was the carrying aspect of your game that you’d not developed as much as you now say you should have done.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:26:53] Yes exactly, exactly. I lost confidence in it, because when I first came onto the scene I was actually a really good ball carrier. It was probably what I was more known for as well as my big hits, and then yes, for whatever reason I just kind of lost confidence in it, didn’t develop it. And so I, yes, it became one of, you know.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:27:17] When you look back at that period then, what do you think was going on in your head? Because if you stand back from it from an amateur perspective, which is what I’ve got, aside from those bumps that you described, you’re playing rugby at an incredibly high level, right? Your game is all in, from an outside perspective. You’re not someone who shies away to any extent.

And yet you are saying to yourself you’re failing a bit here. You’re not developing as you should develop. I’m putting words into your mouth. I’m interested in what’s going on in your head.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:28:02] The problem was then, I wasn’t saying that to myself, I was too content with how I was playing. I was a good defensive player, very good. I’d hit people, I’d make my tackles, I’d get round the park, I could do that. But I wasn’t interested enough in developing the other side of my game that I’d actually been really good at previously as well.

I was calling the lineouts and the lineouts were going well, I was doing the fundamental things of my game relatively well, but I just left this kind of gaping hole in my game. And I wasn’t interested enough, looking back, in becoming a complete player.

And so I wasted a good few years where I could have been an even better player than I am now, and it’s always going to haunt me, that will, always.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:29:02] 2009 as you say, you made your senior England debut. Do you remember the call?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:29:09] I do. It wasn’t even from Johnno, whose- Johnno was the DOR you’d say at the time. It was from Dylan Hartley. So Dyl was obviously in the squad and was playing really well for Saints, and we’d just- I was still young.

It’s a funny story, because when you’re coming through the age groups you go away doing the under-18s, under-20s and stuff like that, and I used to hate going away. I used to hate it. I’d never enjoy the food and I’d always lose weight and yes, I just didn’t like going away at all.

And then I went to the under-20s World Cup, we played in Japan, came home and I was like, “Thank God I’m not going to have to go away with age groups any more,” kind of thing. And then obviously a few months later I get called up for England. So I was a bit like, “Damn, I’ve got to go away again,” kind of thing.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:30:08] Not the reaction that one would normally give for being told they’re about to get their first full England cap.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:30:13] I know. I think we were going- I supposed to be going to some concert or something with some of the other boys. Anyway, Dyls phoned me up and he was like, “Look, Johnno wants you down in camp,” and I was like, “Ugh, okay, fine.” But I really thought that I was just going to be holding tackle bags, I thought he just wants to get me a bit of experience, kind of thing.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:30:32] Stepping on for the first time?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:30:32] Yes, no it was crazy.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:30:33] Is that memory sort of quite vivid in your mind?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:30:36] Yes, yes. I remember the bus from Penny Hill to Twickenham, getting the police escort and stuff like that, it was pretty cool to be honest. Sitting on the bus and just, you know, I was really excited, just wanted to get on the pitch to be honest. I was playing great rugby and I was very confident, so yes, I just wanted to get out there.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:30:56] And Mum and Dad must have been chuffed to bits.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:30:59] Yes, I think so yes, I think so.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:31:01] You think so? Did they talk about it? Your dad must have been thrilled.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:31:05] Yes, they obviously came to the game.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:31:06] Because he’s not a rugby man. I’m sure he’s become one, but-

Courtney Lawes:               [0:31:09] Yes, he is now yes. But no, he was cricket and football, being from the West Indies. So yes, he loves it.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:31:15] Yes. But he must have been thrilled?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:31:16] Yes, everyone was incredibly proud.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:31:21] You went to the 2011 World Cup in your early twenties. I remember that tour largely because you got an awful lot of media scrutiny. There was a lot of stuff going on that was attracting press attention.

How did you find that period? How did you find that pressure, the scrutiny bit, when you’re- you know, you’re a young man just trying to find your way in the squad, trying to find your way in the team? I mean, you’d been there a while, a couple of years by then, but what do you remember about that period?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:31:53] To be honest I was relatively oblivious to the outside noise, luckily. I wasn’t massive on social media, I don’t even think I had Instagram or anything like that then, and Twitter not really.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:32:02] Twitter was just getting started, yes.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:32:04] So I was-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:32:06] Thankfully Twitter was just getting started.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:32:06] Yes, literally. I was relatively oblivious to it, and obviously- I actually got my only ever disciplinary ban, I got a two-week ban from the Argentina game which was the first game, so I had to sit out a couple of games. But yes, it all obviously kicked off in terms of media and throwing midgets and all that kind of stuff.

But genuinely, we’d heard Ireland had been there the week before and tore the place to the ground, burnt it to the ground basically, and you know, because their media is not- you know, they’re not that bothered about stuff like that, nobody even finds out about it. But really we were just having a good time. We didn’t hurt anyone, nobody did anything they weren’t supposed to do, kind of thing, but that’s the English media. It’s just part of the job.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:33:06] How did it make you feel about your career in sport, knowing that you’d got that aspect to contend with? Did it trouble you at all, or were you like everything it seems, pretty relaxed about it?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:33:19] Yes, I wasn’t that fussed about it to be honest. I tried not to pay too much attention to it, again, just trying to get on with my own life honestly, and yes, enjoy it as much as possible really.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:33:37] You’ve always it seems had this kind of- you talked about the ability to compartmentalise, but you’ve also seemingly got this incredible ability to kind of keep things on a level. Is that right? Or emotionally you don’t have extremes?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:33:56] No, obviously everybody wavers emotionally, but I’d say I’m a pretty stable person, emotionally I understand myself quite well, and it’s why I’ve been able to play so consistently, especially in the last five or six years, because I’m able to manage myself emotionally for the game, get myself in the right place to perform.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:34:20] And that comes naturally to you? If I were to sort of push a bit on the Courtney Lawes Operating System, what would I get? What would I learn? What’s the methods that you- there’s obviously the ability just to kind of switch on, listen, as you say, kind of respond to advice and coaching. What are the other aspects?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:34:45] I guess I’d say it does come quite naturally, because I’ve not ever worked with a psychiatrist or anything like that.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:34:54] You’ve not worked with a sports psychologist?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:34:56] No, no.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:34:57] Because that must have been offered repeatedly?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:34:59] Yes, it’s always been on the table, but I guess because I’ve been quite good at managing my emotions myself, and I honestly think that comes from being around your dad so much, and my dad being able to obviously do that.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:35:13] That’s really interesting.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:35:14] And you pick up on that kind of stuff.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:35:16] That’s quite rare in the game, or not? Would you say the majority of lads are relying on that or using that kind of-?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:35:25] I’d say yes, relatively, and if they’re not it’s because you- we’ve been trying to develop at the Saints the ability to understand yourself going into a game and how you prepare yourself for a game, so that you can perform consistently. And like I said, I think that’s kind of come quite naturally to me, and as I say I’ve never really used a sports psychologist to develop that.

But if you have to, you should definitely use a psychologist to develop that as a- I’m saying this from a sports standpoint, to develop that side of your game so that you understand yourself better. And of course, I guess that translates to the rest of your life as well. If you can manage that part of you to play rugby you can also manage it-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:36:16] Well, you’ve never needed in rugby, I’m guessing you’ve never needed it in any other aspect of your life? You’ve never had counselling, you’re not-

We should make clear here; you’re not saying you’re anti at all, quite the reverse right?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:36:27] No, not at all.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:36:29] But for you, you’ve not.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:36:33] I spoke to a sports psychologist when I was coming back from my concussion last season, because that was quite a hard thing to come back from, just to make sure that I was okay to come back and play rugby. So that was quite eye-opening to me, and to understand how much- you know, just speaking to somebody who knows about what you’re going through can help you.

And it’s very important to not be ashamed of that or to not be afraid to express or tell people that you’ve been through hard times, even though, you know, even though I think of myself as quite a stable person and somebody that can be relied on, sometimes it’s okay to rely on other people.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:37:24] Yes. And it sits sort of slightly- not the sports psychology bit, which if course is now well-established, kind of you’re the exception. But the idea of a rugby player opening up emotionally is a relatively new idea, isn’t it? When the culture of rugby- and it is changing relatively fast, but that’s more of a leap, isn’t it, in your game perhaps than others?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:37:55] Yes I think so, and a lot has been made out of this, and some of it’s right and some of it’s wrong. But just I guess men in general talking. Because I think men in society feel a lot of- I think men in society should feel responsibility to provide and protect for themselves and their family, honestly, but it doesn’t mean that you should bear the entirety of that burden.

You should have people, whether it’s your parents or whether it’s your spouse or whether it’s a psychiatrist or a therapist or whatever it is that you can share your thoughts with, so that you can deeper understand what you’re going through, what you’re trying to do, and where you’re at as a person.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:38:41] Absolutely. And the extreme end of that, where we are in terms of, bluntly, male suicide-

Courtney Lawes:               [0:38:49] Yes, exactly.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:38:50] At a young age, and also men in their fifties, is something we want to talk more about in the podcast as it happens.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:38:57] Yes, that’s very important.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:39:00] But in terms of mental health in sport, you’ve obviously been around lads who have struggled. What has that left you feeling about in terms of the support systems in rugby, the culture of rugby? What else would you like to see kind of change perhaps? And when have those moments occurred, I suppose, and how did you approach them?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:39:22] Again, I think that men would actually be surprised at how willing to be open other men are. So you know, as I said, you burden yourself with the full brunt of your responsibility, but actually everybody is kind of doing that. So if you’re just open with each other you can share each other’s responsibility. And honestly, talking to people, just talking; if you’ve got something on your mind and the only dialogue you’ve got is with yourself it becomes a much heavier burden to bear. Whereas if you just talk to somebody about it, just open up, they don’t even have to really say anything back, but just share it.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:40:15] Get it out.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:40:16] Yes, get it out. The weight, you can almost feel it lifting off you. And I think we have to give each other, as men, a chance to listen. So I give you a chance to listen to me, do you know what I mean? Whereas we think that nobody has got time for us, or you know, nobody else is going through this kind of thing.

But just give your mate a chance to be there for you, kind of thing, you know what I mean?

Andy Coulson:                   [0:40:47] Let’s talk a bit more about the injuries, you touched on it a minute ago. You’ve suffered knee issues, injured a disc in your back, torn pectoral muscles off the bone, among other injuries. Multiple surgeries, playing in pain, and as you touched on, most seriously in 2022 after a blow I think to the back of your head you damaged your vestibular system which controls your balance and coordination. A pretty serious injury.

On one level you’d say, “Well, it’s all part and parcel of the game,” but each one of those a mini crisis for you. I mean, on a couple of occasions there I’m guessing, wondering actually, “Is this the beginning of the end?”

Courtney Lawes:               [0:41:29] Yes, definitely.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:41:29] You know, “In terms of my playing career.”

Courtney Lawes:               [0:41:31] Yes definitely, and especially the concussion one, that took me a long time to get back from.

But yes, injuries especially, you know, your pecs and your knees and that kind of stuff are unfortunately part and parcel of rugby. It is a tough sport and nobody gets through it without having some form of rehabilitation to do. So we have to understand that and you have to know the risks going into the game.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:42:05] During those moments what approach would you take? Again, the conversation, the kind of Courtney Lawes Operating System again, what’s the-?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:42:10] Yes honestly, any time I’ve ever had an injury all I’ve ever wanted to do is come back a better player. And that’s been definitely one of things that has kept-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:42:20] That’s interesting. So don’t just get back, get back better.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:42:24] Yes, 100%. That has definitely-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:42:25] Which is a lesson for crisis writ large.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:42:26] Yes I guess, I guess. But yes, genuinely whenever I’ve been injured I have been determined to come back a better, stronger, faster- whatever it is, it depends on where the injury is obviously, but there’s always stuff you can work on for your return to play.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:42:43] That’s interesting. So that’s opportunity from crisis.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:42:47] Yes it is very much, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:42:47] So how would you approach that? Give me an example of when you’ve done that and how you improved your game. I mean, when you got that pretty serious injury a couple of years ago, which is very significant, how did you-?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:43:00] My back, is that the one you’re talking about?

Andy Coulson:                   [0:43:01] I’m talking about the with your head, yes. What was the opportunity you identified, and what did you do about it?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:43:08] Well, for one I can actually- my entire body was functional. So you know, when you do your knee you can’t do your legs for six weeks or whatever it is. You can’t train your legs, you can’t do this and that. And when you do your pec your upper body suffers, that kind of stuff. So strength and conditioning is obviously massive for rugby and it’s definitely something I’ve used to become a better player.

And when I was out with my head I could actually still gym just fine, so I got myself actually really strong and really fast, well, for me, really strong and really fast and powerful ready to come back and start playing again.

And yes, that’s kind of what has kept me developing as a player so that when I’ve been injured, which is obviously way more than I’d like to have been, I’ve still been able to hit the ground running when I’ve returned.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:44:11] Courtney. 2020 you found yourself dealing with a different issue that also required resilience, but resilience of a different nature, as I hinted at in the intro.

You came under, in my view totally unwarranted, pretty vicious personal attacks when, as so often these days, you dared to give an honestly held opinion, a perfectly reasonable opinion, on Twitter. Just tell us what happened.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:44:39] Yes. Marcus Rashford had just secured, I think it was food stamps for, you know, underprivileged, making sure people didn’t go hungry basically, and I thought that was obviously fantastic. But I thought we could also- it might be a good idea to talk about a few of the ways people get themselves in that position, and trying to solve or help that issue as well.

Honestly, I don’t think I timed it well, and probably worded it quite poorly as well, but yes, I landed myself in a bit of trouble.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:45:11] What did you say?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:45:13] From memory, I said something along the lines, you know, I congratulated him on what he’d done, I genuinely thought it was a great thing, and then-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:45:21] It was an amazing campaign.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:45:22] Yes, it really was yes. And then I said now we should probably start talking about being financially stable, I think I said.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:45:34] You talked about the importance of family, and you talked about the importance of-

Courtney Lawes:               [0:45:38] Yes. Being financially stable, and I think I said possibly or preferably married before you decide to have kids. Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:45:46] So in your mind, what we were you- which was a perfectly reasonable point to make, not least because it’s your opinion. That’s your opinion and fair enough.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:45:55] Indeed.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:45:56] But what was in your mind when you sent the Tweet, what were you thinking? This is something that you felt pretty strongly about, right?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:46:03] Yes, of course. And it’s something, again, that kind of made sense to me from my experience and also looking at the data, that people, or children growing up with married parents do much better in life. And therefore hopefully won’t need food stamps and whatever else to kind of get through life.

So you know, we can help the people who are in the situation whilst trying to help people-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:46:38] Prevent it.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:46:40] Exactly, stop people from getting in the situation in the first place.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:46:42] It’s interesting that you felt that this was an issue that you wanted to say something about. Had this been bubbling away for you for a while? Was it something that you thought, “Actually I’ve been talking about this amongst my mates and you know, this is a view that I’ve held for quite some time. Why wouldn’t I want to share it now?”

Because there wasn’t any intent, it was just, “This is what I think.”

Courtney Lawes:               [0:47:10] Yes, and I definitely didn’t think it had-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:47:12] You certainly weren’t being critical of Marcus Rashford.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:47:14] No, I definitely didn’t think it would get as much attention as it did, to be honest. It was just a Tweet that I thought, you know, we could actually try and get to the core, or one of the cores of the issue here.

And obviously yes, of course you talk about it with your friends and your family and all that kind of stuff. I’d always been quite willing to give my opinion, I’d used Twitter a few times just to try and get my opinion out there. Because I think a lot of the times, especially that kind of opinion is very much shunned nowadays, and I really don’t- I’m really not bothered if you want to hate. And a lot of people didn’t enjoy that Tweet, but-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:48:05] That’s an understatement, again. It was a bit more than that, wasn’t it? As is the nature of Twitter, there were people demanding that you should lose your job. There were people writing to Northampton saying that you should be fired. I mean, madness.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:48:19] Yes, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:48:19] How did you feel about that?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:48:23] It was quite eye-opening in a lot of ways. I found it so ironic that there’s people that feel like they stand on this pedestal because they support a certain view or they think a certain way, and they think they are very good people because of this opinion. But they will try and get you fired. You know, I’ve got four kids, I’ve got a family to look after and I’m the main breadwinner. Yet they’ll try and destroy that, bring that down, just because I’ve said something that they don’t like.

I found that really eye-opening. And they think they are good people for doing that.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:49:15] They think they are better people.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:49:17] Better people. Better people for doing that. So I think that these kinds of people need to actually have a think about why that is, and why they feel that way so strongly that they should try to destroy somebody’s life just because they’ve said something that they don’t like.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:49:38] This is what I love, Courtney, because you’re talking about it. How a lot of people would have reacted to this is, “Oh my God, look what I’m getting.” And I’m sure there were people around you saying, “This is not good.” Sponsors, right? The commercial world.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:49:55] Of course, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:49:57] I bet it was sticky. But not only did you- you’ve accepted that your timing probably wasn’t great and maybe your wording could have been better, but the central message of what you’re saying you have absolutely stood by and you’re sat here now talking about it perfectly happily. That’s what I love, because there’s not enough of that.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:50:13] Yes, of course.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:50:13] Of people once they are under attack being able to say, “Well, this is what I think.” And this is the problem that we have, right? Our inability to sort of disagree agreeably. This idea that disagreeing also is not enough, but that there’s got to be some form of punishment or retribution.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:50:27] Of course. And that’s a massive point, that’s a massive point. We’re never going to agree on everything as a society, as people, but you know, we can disagree without hating each other. Better yet, we can find common ground. So yes, that’s the massive thing for me; we haven’t got to be enemies.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:50:48] Saints were thankfully very supportive, weren’t they?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:50:53] Yes, they were really good.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:50:55] Any grief from elsewhere in sport? Was it tricky?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:50:59] No, it was okay. I lost one sponsor over it but I kind of gained another. Adidas were great.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:51:07] And the sponsor that you lost, what did they say to you?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:51:11] They just said they didn’t want that kind of heat, basically.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:51:18] And your reaction to them?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:51:20] It is what it is, do you know what I mean?

Andy Coulson:                   [0:51:21] It is what it is.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:51:22] It is what it is. They didn’t necessarily fire me, but they were going to extend my contract and they didn’t.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:51:29] But it’s interesting who runs towards the gunfire and who runs away, isn’t it?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:51:31] Yes no, it is. It is indeed. But no, Saints were great. A guy called Tim Percival was on comms and yes, he was the one picking up the emails and whatnot, and saying, “He’s entitled to his opinion.” Because you know, we had a few strongly worded emails saying that I should lose my job and shouldn’t be allowed around children, apparently.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:51:54] Just astonishing.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:51:56] But on the flipside of that, I actually got-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:51:58] Actually not that astonishing. We see this too often, don’t we.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:52:01] Yes. But on the flipside of that I got inundated with positive messages as well. A lot of handwritten letters and stuff like that, and emails and things like that supporting me as well. So you know, there’s a negative side of it but there’s also people out there that obviously feel the same.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:52:18] Yes. But what I love Courtney as I say is that you’ve stuck with it. That this idea of promoting stable families, however that family is made up, which is your clear view, is the key.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:52:28] Yes, exactly.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:52:29] And that is something that you’re talking about from experience, as we’ve touched on already. Why can’t you have that opinion?

Rugby. Sports has faced, is facing, a number of challenges. Racism first in the wake of, like all sport, in the wake of Black Lives Matter. You took a clear view, interestingly, that surprised some I think in deciding not to take the knee when there was incredible pressure to do so. Because you felt that it was a divisive gesture.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:52:57] Yes. I don’t know, for whatever reason I’d been quite aware of the kind of Black Lives Matter organisation or whatever it is, and what they stood for. I’d seen their website, and the kind of things they are pushing is certainly not a stable family, it’s quite the opposite.

So yes, I knew that taking the knee was promoting, even if you didn’t want to, promoting the Black Lives Matter organisation. And when people see that and they want to make a change, and obviously generously give their hard-earned money, they will go to that organisation and give that money to them. And we’ve seen now what that money has gone towards, and it certainly wasn’t what everybody thought was what they were going to put it towards.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:54:02] That’s so interesting. So when the issue first emerged, was first discussed in the club or in camp, you pointed all that out?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:54:12] Yes, very much. I guess fortunately I had prior knowledge of them and what they’re about as an organisation, and yes, in terms of values it was the complete opposite.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:54:26] Not the easy decision though, that.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:54:27] No, definitely.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:54:29] You knew you’d get flack for it, right?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:54:30] Yes, of course. But again, I’m always going to stand by what I think. Actually we wanted to be unified as a club, so we wanted either everybody to take the knee or kind of nobody. And the only way you could really do that is to tell people, but I was quite adamant that we make this the decision for people to make, not, “You have to stand up,” or, “You have to take the knee.” Because if they were to say to me, “You have to kneel down before the game,” I would have said no. And I think that if somebody absolutely wanted to kneel before the game, that they should be allowed to. But they should have all the information first.

So yes, that’s just how we went about it.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:55:24] Another issue for rugby, last week a study, I think it was from a number of universities actually combined; Winchester, Nottingham Trent, Bournemouth, described rugby as a form of organised child abuse. They argue for removing intentional collisions in kids’ rugby, but actually when you read the report really what they’re arguing for is the end of rugby, I think. Certainly in schools.

Your view on that report?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:55:55] I suppose I’m in a really good position to talk about it, because I’ve got two 6-year-old boys who play rugby and I’ve got an 8-year-old boy who has started contact rugby.

I haven’t read the report unfortunately yet, I only just heard about it yesterday, so I don’t know exactly where the information has come from in their studies, and what they’re talking about and why, unfortunately.

But from my standpoint, so my 6-year-olds don’t even do contact yet. They’re not even playing touch, they will not play touch until next season. Tag sorry, not touch. So it’s still a non-contact sport for them. And Teddy, who is 8, who has just started playing contact this year, I’ve been to see the vast majority of his games, and if you’ve been to an under-8’s or -9’s or whatever game of rugby, you quickly realise that these kids don’t actually have the speed and power and strength to do serious damage to each other, generally.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:56:58] It’s a pack of kids running as a group.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:57:04] And the furthest they run into each other from is about a metre, because they are so tightly packed in. So I’ve not seen a head injury this season whilst watching my little boy, and they absolutely love the game. You know, they’re tackling safely, and most importantly they are learning to tackle safely while they are almost unable to really hurt each other, which is fantastic.

And that’s what you want; you want your kids to be able to learn how to do this thing effectively that is dangerous, while they are in the least amount of danger doing it. Because you know, they’re not big and strong enough to actually really hurt each other.

But if you didn’t do contact until they were 16 and then just went, “Go!” and these giant, rapid 16-year-olds are running at each other having no tackle experience or technique, car crash. It would be absolute carnage out there.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:58:06] Yes. My lads have played rugby, my 14-year-old plays a lot of rugby at the moment, and the standards of coaching- he’s very lucky to be at a terrific club in a school that takes its rugby very seriously. But the responsibility of the coaches is a heavy responsibility, and I’ve only ever seen that taken seriously, professionally, they’re on it. The kind of system that sits around rugby, no one can argue that it’s perfect-

Courtney Lawes:               [0:58:36] No.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:58:37] But it’s pretty comprehensive, and in my experience as a parent, very responsible.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:58:43] Yes. And we have to get kids active. We absolutely have to. Obesity is becoming a real problem in the UK as it is in the US, and the more we can get our kids out there playing sports, being active, the better it transfers into their later life.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:59:02] So the report in essence is saying that there should be less rugby in schools. Actually I think the message that sits underneath is that there should be no rugby in schools.

Courtney Lawes:               [0:59:08] No rugby in schools, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:59:09] You feel very strongly there should be more rugby in more schools, particularly state schools right?

Courtney Lawes:               [0:59:13] Yes, exactly. I want to push as many sports as we can. Obviously you cannot play every sport in school, that’s impossible, there are so many sports. But we can introduce many more sports into schools, especially state schools.

I went to NSB, and as I said, I would have never played rugby if I didn’t go there. And how much potential are we really wasting as a nation just by not giving these kids an opportunity to go out there and become something and grow into better people in the long run, and therefore better members of society?

So yes, it really does make such a big difference in so many different ways from a health, mental health standpoint and also the ability to-

Andy Coulson:                   [1:00:06] Values, right? The importance of teamwork.

Courtney Lawes:               [1:00:07] Values, discipline.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:00:09] Which sounds like an easy thing to say but it means a lot.

Courtney Lawes:               [1:00:11] And community. A lot of these different sports have communities within themselves that you can be a part of, and you know, loneliness is such a big thing nowadays and it’s because people aren’t able to get out there and enjoy other people’s company and participate in something that you’ve got a common goal in, you know?

Andy Coulson:                   [1:00:36] We touched on race, but actually it’s the socioeconomic imbalance I suppose in the sport that you seem to be far more interested in, far more passionate about.

Courtney Lawes:               [1:00:46] Yes, look. People who want for whatever reason more diversity in sports, from my standpoint it kind of goes both ways. Diversity is everyone, including white people. A lot of people would be happy to have a team of no white people, but what I’m saying is diversity is everybody having an opportunity to go and do and play the sport that they want to play.

And if you open that up to every socioeconomic sector then you will have much more diversity in these places where you want to see it. And ultimately you will get the best product, the best people in these places. And that is non only good for sport, it’s good for society and it’s good for the people involved in it.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:01:49] And this is the sense of the social justice report that you were involved in, Game Changer, that highlighted the role sport plays in transforming young people’s lives. Sports interventions reduce offending by 52%, we touched on that earlier. Participation in sport shown to increase underachieving pupils’ numeracy skills by 29%. Kids from the least affluent families are the least likely to be active. This is the stuff that you’re interested in, this is the stuff that you feel that we can move the dial on if the conversation is in the right place.

Courtney Lawes:               [1:02:24] Yes, and we can really leverage sports to get the best out of our kids as well. America do it relatively well whereby if you’re on the football team, say you’re a starting quarterback, you will lose your position unless your grades are good enough, kind of thing. So it really can be used as a vehicle to do great things and make sure that everybody is getting the education, and the things outside of sport that they really need as well.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:02:53] Courtney, can we talk a little bit about leadership?

Courtney Lawes:               [1:02:56] Yes, of course.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:02:59] As England captain ’21 and ’22, winning trip to Australia, what kind of captain were you?

Courtney Lawes:               [1:03:09] I’d say I was a pretty ‘lead by example’ kind of captain. I like to not talk too much, to be honest. And I think if you’ve got a good kind of group around you, obviously you can’t just have a skipper, especially nowadays, you want a kind of leadership group to pull the team in the right direction. If you’ve got the right people around you, as a skipper, you don’t necessarily have to do too much talking either.

And I was really fortunate to have that on the Australia tour. The leadership team was me, Jack Knowles, Ellis Genge and Owen Farrell. So we had really quite a balanced group of players there that all had their own attributes to put into the team, put into that leadership group, and so we were able to bring the best out of the team.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:04:02] And the link between captain and coach is also key. And the different type of personalities that they might be.

Courtney Lawes:               [1:04:07] Yes, definitely.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:04:08] You were captain under Eddie Jones who is not afraid to give an opinion, and who is not afraid to talk, one imagines.

Courtney Lawes:               [1:04:13] Yes, definitely.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:04:14] And so the fact that you took a slightly different approach, you sort of complimented each other in a way.

Courtney Lawes:               [1:04:19] I think so, I think so. I think that yes, a good balance is generally what’s best, but at the same time having a good relationship is probably more important than that in terms of the captain feeling like he is able to express his opinion to the coach, and what he actually feels, and what he thinks is best for the team ultimately.

And then to come- because it’s never going to be quite the same as what the coach thinks is best, but to be able to come to a compromise.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:04:51] And you are partly translating him as well, aren’t you?

Courtney Lawes:               [1:04:56] Yes, certainly. It’s very important that the team feels and sees the captain and the coaching staff and I guess the leadership group as well all pulling in the same direction. It makes it very easy to follow, very easy to get behind and be a part of.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:05:16] Do you think you’ve grown as a leader throughout your career? If that’s the case, I think we can probably agree that it is, how would you describe the sort of change in you as a leader over your years playing?

Courtney Lawes:               [1:05:29] I don’t know, I suppose it just kind of happened over time. And as I said, I was very lucky to play for Saints. I got my first cap for Saints when I was 18, got my first cap for England when I was 20, so I played really high-level rugby from quite young.

And that experience just kind of builds you up as a leader. You see things, you learn from them, you begin to understand what works and what doesn’t, and you have experience that you can fall back on and call off of kind of thing to learn for the future, basically.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:06:09] You’ve talked about your ability to listen, learn, act on it. What have you taken from other leaders? Give me some examples of where you’ve kind of- which we all do, right? Is borrow from other experiences that we’ve had.

Courtney Lawes:               [1:06:22] Yes, definitely. One of the best skippers I ever had, and I think most people would agree, was when Dylan was skipper under Eddie. When he was captain for the 18 game streak and everything that went with that, and unfortunately he just missed out the World Cup because of his knee.

But he was very much again a kind of ‘lead by example’ leader. Maybe not the same as me whereby he was much more of a work rate player, and you know, do the nuts and bolts stuff really, really well, kind of leader. And he led by example through that.

But ultimately every person in the team knew that he had the team’s and the boys in the team’s best interest at heart. He wasn’t afraid to challenge Eddie even when Eddie was at his peak of being a challenging coach, he wasn’t afraid to take one on the chin and wear one for the team.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:07:34] Courtney, you’re still flying as a player. Your Northampton contract, I think I’m right in saying that you were Premiership Player of the Month a few weeks ago. December?

Courtney Lawes:               [1:07:44] December, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:07:48] Your Northampton contract expires in June, you’ve been a one-club man. Some interesting options on what comes next, one imagines, given your form.

Courtney Lawes:               [1:07:58] Yes, definitely. And it’s such a far cry from last season where I could barely stay on the pitch so your opportunities kind of plummet, unfortunately. But you know, I was able to make it work with Northampton last season, we came to an agreement so I could stay in and at least give the club a good season out of myself. And I didn’t know when I was signing the contract last year if I was even going to continue playing after the season we’re in now. So I just wanted to have one potentially last good season with the club, kind of thing.

And now look, we’re in talks again and obviously I’ll always be a Northampton Saint at heart. That will always factor in regardless, and I’ve always made- I guess taken less money to stay at the Saints, because it’s where I want to be. At the same time it’s not like the Saints haven’t paid me well or whatever, so we’ve always been able to come to an agreement.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:09:11] It’s a rare thing in sport.

Courtney Lawes:               [1:09:15] It is, it’s a really rare thing. So as I said, look, I’ll always be a Saint at heart and that will definitely factor into it. But at the same time I’m well into getting to the end of my career now. This is almost certainly going to be the last contract I do, and I have to definitely, for one get what I’m worth, and two make sure that my family is in the best position and I am in the best position I can be in financially for the future and for post-rugby.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:09:47] It’s not impossible of course, you’ve stopped playing for England. It’s not impossible that you’ll get a Lions call-up. It has happened. There have been players either who have not yet been capped or have been at the other end, I think I’m right in saying, who have played for the Lions.

Courtney Lawes:               [1:10:04] Yes, I think so.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:10:06] In your mind?

Courtney Lawes:               [1:10:07] Look, it’s a long way away. Everyone is talking about it now and look, I have no doubt if I stay on the pitch and stay fit that I will continue to perform, and hopefully improve because I always want to improve. But I can’t say I’m expecting to get a Lions call-up with the amount of really good back row that’s in the UK and Ireland at the minute.

So look, of course I would go, of course I would. It would be a fantastic honour, another fantastic honour for me. But I cannot say that I’m expecting to go, to be honest.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:10:46] Fair enough. So beyond rugby? You’re writing as a columnist for The Times now, a fantastic new column. Coaching is not an option for you, you don’t think.

Courtney Lawes:               [1:10:54] No.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:10:55] Politics seems to be the obvious choice then, Courtney.

Courtney Lawes:               [1:10:58] Politics. Oh man.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:11:03] I joke, by my god we need people who are prepared to have an opinion and stick to it, right? Because you do that; you have an opinion and you’ve stuck to it.

Courtney Lawes:               [1:11:10] Yes. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not going into politics. But I wish that we just had some more people who have experienced life as a citizen of the UK and that are able to stand on their word and deliver what they say they’re going to. And have a bit of pride about it, you know?

Andy Coulson:                   [1:11:37] It’s not complicated, is it?

Courtney Lawes:               [1:11:39] Stop apologising. We’re a proud country, and we should be, and we need somebody that’s going to stand up and say, “I will not apologise for being English, and this is what I want to do.” You know, we need real leaders, real people that are going to stand up and actually make a difference, and actually serve the people that elect you into power. Because we don’t get enough of that nowadays.

It seems like getting into office is just about staying in office, it’s not about actually doing your job which is to provide for the people.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:12:23] Courtney, I can hear people applauding. You’re on the march.

Courtney Lawes:               [1:12:29] Yes, get them out of here.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:12:32] Thanks so much for giving us your time today, it’s been a great conversation, it’s really appreciated.

If you’ve enjoyed this conversation with Courtney, please do give us a rating and a review, it really helps. If it’s five stars, all the better. And if you hit subscribe wherever you download your podcasts from you will find a lot more useful Crisis conversations. You can follow us on Instagram and TikTok, and you can watch the full episodes on YouTube. Just search for Crisis What Crisis podcast. You can also find full transcripts of this and every episode we have recorded on our website,

Thanks again for joining us.

End of Recording [1:13:15]