Such has been Joe Launchbury’s excellence in his nine (yes, just nine) caps for England, it is exceedingly easy to forget how young and inexperienced he is. As we sit down in the changing rooms of Wellington College, which is currently hosting the BMW Wellington International Festival, to discuss his rapid rise through the ranks, the sound of pre-game rituals rings through the walls. England U16s South are preparing to take on Scotland U16s, both teams made up of players just five years Launchbury’s junior. When asked about this stage of his own career he chuckles.
“I didn’t quite get as far as these guys – I trialed for the U16s and got released at the last stage,” he says, smiling. Now excelling for the full international side, it’s unlikely he cares much about that initial snub from the selectors. Still, this is the breeding ground for future stars. “It’s a great opportunity for these guys, along with the work that BMW (through their performance academy) are doing to keep pushing them forward. It’s great for them and it’s a good setup.”
He may not have featured in the under-16s, but it was not so long ago that he was playing age-group rugby. His rise has truly been meteoric – so what of the next step? Is that looming Lions tour on his radar at all? His answer is as predictable as it is admirable. “It’s dangerous to look far ahead in sport,” he says solemnly. “There’s always a game a few days round the corner, so you’re constantly playing, you’re constantly battling away, thinking about the opposition for that weekend. Even 12 months ago, I was nowhere near the positon I’m in now, and I understand the responsibility behind that. I can’t afford to now go on and look a few months down the line because it’s not here yet.”
As much as he has to say this, the Lions is likely to at least have flitted across his mind. As we talk he mentions the tour to Argentina and his hope to build some good form there, but it wouldn’t surprise many if he were plying his trade in an entirely different part of the Southern Hemisphere come June. “The reason that I’ve got to where I am now is that I’m living in the present and trying to work as hard as I can each day to stay here.”
Living in the present is certainly a sensible sentiment, but it is hard to ignore the recent painful past he and his England colleagues have suffered. The hurt felt in the changing room after that catastrophic loss to Wales a few weeks ago is still raw. “We didn’t want the tournament to end that way. We worked really hard for seven weeks to put ourselves in a strong position going into the last game, and it just went wrong that day. Wales were fantastic, they played really well and credit to them for that.”
He is, though, remarkably level-headed, and is keen to put a positive spin on things. “The thing about sport is that unfortunately, whether you like it or not, these sorts of days are going to come along,” he adds. “That by no means makes them any easier, but it’s part of it and it’s a case of getting on with it and kicking on. We’re doing lots of things right – it’s just fine-tuning the things that went wrong that day.”
Realistically, second is not that bad a result. It was having the championship and Grand Slam snatched away at the last moment, and in such a brutal manner, that would have hurt most. And despite some encouraging performances in recent months, the England squad is still incredibly inexperienced compared to its opponents. “We’re a young squad and it’s a very hard tournament to win. In terms of that, coming second’s not the end of the world.
“We’re a very competitive side and we want to win every time we go out onto the pitch, so that last game in Cardiff was a massive disappointment,” he adds. Again, though, Launchbury is keen to look at what they can gain from it. There is time to build, and learn the many lessons dished out in Cardiff. “It will live with us for a long time, and hopefully it will drive us forward. As long as we get better off the back of it then that’s all that matters.”
Back to the present, and it is Wasps occupying his thoughts. It had, until a couple of weeks ago, been an incredible season for them, transforming themselves from the side that struggled so badly both on and off the pitch last year to one with genuine play-off ambitions this time around. A couple of losses, though, and they are back in seventh. Still, it has been an impressive campaign.
“The big goal of the season was to try and creep into that top six,” Launchbury explains. “We’ve let ourselves down over the last few performances, which is not top six standard. We need to put that right and address the balance and put in a performance we can be proud of really.”
This weekend, however, all eyes are on Europe as the Amlin Challenge Cup returns to Adam’s Park. And it is the visit of none other than European champions and Irish giants Leinster that has got Launchbury excited. “It’s the sort of game you want to play in – the quarter finals of a big European competition. As a club it’s great that we’ve turned it around in twelve months, and we’re now playing the European champions at home.”
If the recent past has been bleak for Wasps, the future certainly seems brighter. Launchbury himself is under contract until 2015, and Elliot Daly, one of a host of impressive young Englishmen in their ranks, has just signed a contract extension as well. As someone who has experienced a quick rise himself, Launchbury is excited for what the future holds. “We’ve got lots of young English guys, a lot whom are knocking on the door for honours higher than club rugby as well.”
Of course he is also quick to praise his coach. “We’ve got a good balance, and with the leadership of Dai we’re heading in a good direction,” he adds. “Hopefully if we can stick together we’ll see the fruits of that hard work.”
For Launchbury, you sense that this is just the beginning. Certainly his humble, positive nature stands him in good stead to continue to feature at the pinnacle of the game. England and Wasps know his worth – if the Lions don’t recognise it this time, they no doubt will in the future.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
BMW, official vehicle partner of the RFU, is helping support player development through the BMW Performance Academy, a bespoke development programme for England Rugby’s elite young players.