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'I was getting dialogue from Steve the whole time… then the injury happened'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Damien Meyer/AFP via Getty Images)

Joe Launchbury wasn’t beating himself up the other day when talking about his latest cruel rugby misfortune. Steve Borthwick was repeatedly in touch with him earlier in the year and with England set to commence Rugby World Cup preparations on June 12, the name of the ex-Wasps lock was pencilled in for duty before the training squad was announced.

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He was hungry for international involvement having hunkered down in Japan post his Wasps redundancy and been unavailable for the Guinness Six Nations. However, a shot at participating in his third successive finals quickly eluded him.

Working his way through various running programmes to ensure he would be ready for that first day of England pre-season he tore his hamstring so bad that it has only been in recent weeks that he was finally declared fit again to fully train with Harlequins.

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It was why on Monday, when RugbyPass was dialling in on Zoom from England base camp in Le Touquet-Paris-Plague to chat, that Launchbury was instead wedged into the driving seat in his car somewhere near Quins’ Guilford training base – not across the Channel putting it in on the training ground with Maro Itoje and a phalanx of inexperienced second rows ahead of Saturday’s showdown with Argentina in Marseille.

“That injury unfortunately ruled me out,” shrugged the England 2015 and Japan 2019 veteran. “I was named to be in those camps from the start of this World Cup campaign but I was completing programmes during the summer, running programmes in my off-season, and I managed to tear the hamstring. Pretty unfortunate really.

Team Form

Last 5 Games

3
Wins
3
1
Streak
2
13
Tries Scored
17
-5
Points Difference
37
2/5
First Try
2/5
2/5
First Points
3/5
1/5
Race To 10 Points
2/5

“I knew going to Japan was going put my international aspirations on hold for a little bit during the Six Nations, but I was getting dialogue from Steve the whole time I was in Japan and I was pretty keen to get back and get back involved.

“Unfortunately these things don’t always go the way you want them to go. That injury ruled me out and I have only been back in full training the last week or so. It has taken a long while to get fit and I have obviously missed the boat.”

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If there is an upside, it’s that Launchbury – who along with Adam Jones and Jerry Flannery will be penning a weekly Rugby World Cup column for RugbyPass in conjunction with Saxo – will be fully up to speed at Harlequins when the Londoners get their Gallagher Premiership campaign underway. Round two on October 22 will see them host Exeter at The Stoop following an away opener at Gloucester, and it will be a sort of homecoming for the 32-year-old.

Fourteen years ago he was shown the door at the club, getting told he hadn’t been good enough to proceed up their academy ranks. It wasn’t a shock. Launchbury had a sense bad news was coming via Tony Diprose but rather than rejection breaking him, it was the catalyst that eventually took him to Wasps and playing 70 times for England.

There was no bitterness, only steeled resolve to go elsewhere, have some fun, fall back in love with the game, and make it via the circuitous route. Grassroots at Worthing was his pathway, a commitment topped up by shelf stacking at Sainsbury’s. The rest is Wasps and England history, with a fresh chapter now set to be written back at the club that didn’t fancy him in 2009.

“It’s amazing that it’s 14 years. Life is pretty fast-paced but a lot has happened in the 14 years,” he reflected. “I have always had a little inkling of what could have happened if I hung around and stayed; if I got the chance to stay could my career have turned out differently? Quins were probably a bit more steady at the time than Wasps were; it would be a lot harder to break into that first team as young as I did at Wasps.

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“Things always happen for a reason I guess but to be back, to have the opportunity when I knew Quins were interested to get me back in this season, it was certainly appealing. I felt such an attachment to where I had been the last 13 years, for it to end as it did, to then also have a club that I had a bit of a personal attachment to as well, it made it a lot easier.”

How very different is Harlequins’ set-up in Guildford compared to what he knew at Roehampton a bit further up the A3? “A lot has changed. There are only a couple of faces who are still there from back then. Will Collier and Luke Wallace from the playing side were kind of in my academy intake.

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“A guy like Joe Marler was in the academy a year above, so I have known Joe since we were in school. I’ll look forward to those guys (Marler and Danny Care who are with England) coming back in because I’m currently the oldest in the squad at the moment. It’s a bit depressing, so I’m looking forward to Danny and Joe coming back and taking me off the top spot.”

Let’s talk more about how Launchbury made it post-Harlequins. Teenagers in his position can walk away disaffected with the game, never to return. How did he turn that pain into power? “It wasn’t like it was a bolt from out of the blue, you were high-flying and you were in the top group and it was all suddenly taken away. I had a bit of an inkling for probably a few months before it was going to be a bit of a long shot.

“We had an extremely talented age group and I knew there weren’t going to be that many contracts handed out at the end of the year and they had earmarked a few guys to be getting them from probably quite a long way. There is certainly no bitterness around that and deep down at the time, I also knew it was the right decision (by Quins) so that made it easier,” he explained.

“I was, as all guys are at that sort of age, pushed and pulled around a whole host of different hobbies. I loved all my sports, tried to have a social life at school, tried to do well in my exams. The truth was I probably struggled with that balance and I probably didn’t dedicate myself to rugby as much as maybe I should have done.

“I actually don’t regret that. I’m so glad that I kept a few options open and didn’t go down and put all my eggs in one basket [the academy]. That is not necessarily what you need to do in a sports environment, you need to dedicate a bit more. But in terms of that (rejection) being the best thing for me, I do wholeheartedly believe that is the case.

“The academy system in England clearly is amazing. Players at every club are coming. With the salary cap restraints, more than ever that academy pathway is hugely important. But for me having that year out of the professional game, having that year away from getting everything done for you as an academy player, I had to go off and work out how much I did want to play.

“I was at a semi-professional level with guys who work 12-hour days and then come and train. Yes, they might get a little bit of pocket money for that but fundamentally they were doing it because they love the sport and love being around a group of guys and competing at the weekend. That was the bit where I probably fell back in love with the game.

“I loved the idea of going away at the weekend, a fixture away and having a few drinks on the bus on the way home. That sort of old-school mentality really grew my love for rugby and fortunately, that led to opportunities to get back in the professional game.”

Jumping forward, Launchbury was just weeks into his 13th season at Wasps last October when the job security he went on to enjoy after catching the eye at Worthing spectacularly disappeared overnight. The club went bust despite promises it had a survival plan and it suddenly left the seasoned forward at a loose and.

As the father of a young family of two with a third set to arrive some months later, salvation came in mid-November, Launchbury signing for two clubs in the space of a few days. He would be off to Toyota Verblitz at the start of 2023, his appetite for all things Japanese infused by his experience there with England at the 2019 World Cup, and then he would return to the Premiership with Harlequins for 2023/24.

“To go from being at one club for so long and then starting with two in the space of a week, getting to the other side of the world, taking your family out to a completely different rugby environment and a whole different culture and language, it was the best thing for us.

“I had opportunities to stay in England straight after Wasps unfortunately folded and I took them seriously. That would have enhanced potential international prospects but for me and for my family, I felt a bit of a break from the English game after what had happened was the best thing for us.

“To mentally get away from all the negativity around what happened, take yourself to a different environment and spend some quality time together as a family – and also for me learn to a bit more about rugby on and off the field and learn from different cultures. I don’t know what is in store for me after I finish playing, but I do see myself being involved in rugby so gathering these sorts of experiences from different environments was really important.

“I didn’t get to play as many games as I would like (due to an injury) but I still played a decent amount by the end. During that injury period, I just helped out as much as I could. Culturally in Japan, there is quite a hierarchical process so if a coach says something, that is how they do it.

“But I found really fascinating that whole dynamic, getting the players to speak up a bit more, getting some of the senior players to speak a bit more. That side of it was interesting, but to get back on the pitch at the end was pretty pleasing.”

With Quins now his home, how has the adjustment been? “It’s been great, everything I hoped it would be. Everyone at this time of this year will tell you they had a good pre-season, the boys are looking good, and all the rest of it. That’s the case at Quins definitely.

“We have got a very young group, especially with some of the guys away, but it’s an ambitious group. A lot of those guys have had success very early in their careers winning the league a couple of years ago. That’s great because they know how good that feeling is but Quins, by their own admission, would say they were complacent over the last few years and probably haven’t hit the heights they were hoping for.

“We have been doing a lot of work this pre-season to rectify that. A lot of quality work has gone in and fortunately, we start off this weekend with our first session of games [Premiership Cup at home to Hartpury]. It has been a long pre-season getting to here, so the opportunity for the guys to play will be interesting.”

Launchbury definitely has an enriching tale to tell them about never taking their career for granted. “Rugby is quite a complicated sport but it is also a simple sport where a lot of the stuff I love about it is what it instils in young children, that all-round resilience, that work-hard piece.

“You don’t get anywhere without working hard and I guess that is what that period of my life [2009 rejection by Quins] taught me and I certainly don’t think I am anywhere near one of the most talented players in the room. I like to think I worked pretty hard and sort of earned my career in that regard, those little habits to cope with that little setback.

“Only a handful of people’s careers are just an upward trajectory for their whole career; everyone has ups and downs during it. I’m pretty thankful it happened pretty early, and then you have a couple more during your playing career but on the whole, it has been a pretty good run.”

  • This interview is a preview to our Rugby World Cup guest column brought to you in association with the renewed partnership between Harlequins and official trading partner Saxo, a global leader in online investing, for the 2023/2024 Gallagher Premiership season
  • RugbyPass will be speaking to England lock Joe Launchbury, former Wales/Lions prop and now coach Adam Jones and ex-Ireland hooker turned coach Jerry Flannery over the course of the next two months.
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