Courtney Lawes is to face Paul O’Connell for the second time in the Test arena knowing the grizzled Ireland veteran will offer the ultimate gauge of the progress he has made this season.
England enter today’s Six Nations title showdown at Twickenham intent on strengthening their claim to a first Championship crown under Stuart Lancaster by ambushing the Celts’ grand slam march.
Among a string of eagerly awaited duels in a potentially epic encounter sees Lawes and O’Connell collide in a battle between young pretender and old master.
Lawes, with his injury problems behind him, has become an increasingly influential figure for England; his muscular presence in the loose combined with a growing leadership role.
Opposing the 24-year-old and his growing reputation is O’Connell, a decorated warrior of three British and Irish Lions tours and among the game’s great locks.
“Paul obviously brings a great deal of physicality but, over and above that, his leadership and the fact he’s so experienced make him very influential,” said Lawes.
“He’s a leader for Ireland and he’s very much a talisman for them, so he’ll be looking to put pressure on us at the line-out and also around the park. He’s a very diligent player and he’ll certainly have done a lot of research on us.”
Lawes has forged a commanding second-row partnership with Joe Launchbury that will see them start their sixth international of the season together. Their success has been based on athleticism rather than grunt, a strength born out by the fact both have played at blindside flanker with Lawes fulfilling that role before for England.
“We can play at six because we are more athletic than the normal second row, the Bakkies Botha type of second row,” said Lawes.
“But it’s not because we’ve played at blindside flanker that we are like that, it’s because we’re like that we can play six as well.
“We’re both still quite young. Joe’s 22 and I’m 24. He made his debut when he was 21 and I made mine when I was 20, so we’ve got a lot of experience in the England set-up. Even though we have only just started playing together, we’ve always sort of known about each other. We’ve got a connection.”
The first outing of the year at Twickenham has the making of a classic with two well-matched teams determined to issue a statement of intent.
Ireland are vastly more experienced, fielding a starting XV containing 724 caps compared to England’s 302, and their forwards were impressive as they swept aside Scotland and Wales.
“Historically we are pretty good at defending mauls” said Lawes. “Ireland have been very good at rolling mauls recently, so we’ve been even more careful on that this week.”