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'I've been in conversations with Steve, we've always kept in touch'

By Bryn Palmer
(Photo by Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Former Wasps lock Joe Launchbury has signalled his intent to force his way into the England World Cup squad later this year despite taking a sabbatical in Japanese rugby. The 70-Test veteran is currently recovering from a broken hand sustained in his full debut in Japan’s League One for Toyota Verblitz, the club he began training with in December after the demise of his beloved Wasps.

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Launchbury, 31, is ineligible for his country during his six-month stint in the Far East, which ends in May before he returns to England to join Harlequins on July 1 and has revealed he has been in regular contact with new England head coach Steve Borthwick in recent weeks.

Far from considering his Test career to be over, he hopes to earn a recall this summer ahead of the global gathering in France starting in September. “I don’t think you ever lose that ability, or that desire, to play international rugby and it’s certainly still there for myself,” he said, speaking from his home in Nagoya, west of Tokyo.

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“I understand being over here now is making it harder for myself and missing the Six Nations is making it harder again, but it is still something I am very passionate about. I have been in conversations with Steve; he is someone I have worked with for a number of years. We have always kept in touch and we certainly have over the last few weeks.

“For me now, short-term it’s about getting back from this hand injury – hopefully I will be back playing in a few weeks’ time – and then from there, whatever happens, happens.”

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Having worked with Borthwick when he was an assistant coach with England under Eddie Jones, Launchbury believes the former Leicester Tigers head coach will swiftly restore the reputation of the Red Rose pack and make them a unit to be feared again. “He obviously changed Leicester pretty quickly,” Launchbury noted. “Steve is an extremely detailed coach and very knowledgeable, especially around the forward area.

“I imagine he will get that forward pack back to being feared by some of the other teams, which maybe they haven’t been over the last period of time. I’m sure that will be his focus straightaway and I certainly think there will be a bit of a reaction from them. The Six Nations is a hugely challenging tournament and anyone can beat anyone, but I expect England to be competing much more than they have been over the last few years.”

Launchbury spent 12 years at Wasps after joining the club as a teenager and it is clear the scars of their slide into administration last October and subsequent relegation from the Premiership are still raw. He still can’t quite believe a professional sport “could allow two of the top 13 teams in the country to go like they did”, with Worcester suffering the same fate.

Following the mass redundances suffered by both clubs, he now prefers not to plan too far ahead these days. “If you’d asked me six months ago, I’d probably have said I wanted to stay at Wasps for the rest of my club career. But things obviously change and the one thing I have learned recently is you can’t look too far forward. You might be doing something completely different.

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“I didn’t expect to be out here quite so soon and I am really excited about going to Quins. It’s a club I played a lot of my junior schoolboy rugby with as well, so closing the circle on that will be quite nice. I obviously hope there is a future for Wasps, there is something there and whatever comes of it, I hope they succeed in the future. Whether I play any part in that, we will see along the way.”

For now, England exile Launchbury is revelling in the chance to experience a new culture, on and off the pitch, in Japan with his wife Mallory and their two children, Blythe and Hayden. The family are only an 80-minute bullet train ride away from Tokyo and have just returned from a weekend trip to Osaka. “We went to Universal Studios and ticked off all the touristy bits up there,” he explained.

When I came over here for the World Cup in 2019, I said to my wife if the opportunity ever arises to come back, it would be brilliant and we are absolutely loving it. She is heavily pregnant as well now but we have loved it so far from a cultural point of view. I have also been impressed by how professional it is here and the standard of rugby.

“I am towards the big and heavy end of the scale in England and I’m a fair bit heavier than a few of the guys in the team here. They train and play at quite a pace, so although the physicality might be slightly different, the speed of the game is certainly quick.”

With the budgets of Premiership clubs severely squeezed, Launchbury believes more players will tread the same path as he and new Toyota Verblitz teammate Jamie Shillcock, the former Worcester fly-half. “Clearly you have got to be playing in England if you want to play for England, so if you are at that stage of your career and have those ambitions, it is decided for you.

“But a great friend of mine, James Gaskell, is playing for the other Toyota club, Shokki Shuttles, and coming from playing 30-odd games in the Premiership to here and experiencing a different way of life, he is hoping to stay for a few years to come. It is not only beneficial for the Japanese league but also guys with some experience in England where it’s a great time for them to come out and try something different.”

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