Launchbury is ready for EtzebethComment on this story
Bagshot, England - A new generation of second-row “enforcers” go head to head at Twickenham on Saturday as Joe Launchbury of England and Eben Etzebeth of South Africa find themselves with the daunting label at the tender age of 21.
Etzebeth has already earned rave reviews after nine Tests filling the boots of former Springbok hard man Bakkies Botha while Launchbury will make his first start after similarly impressing the England management in his two appearances off the bench.
Etzebeth is free to play having been cleared of an eye gouging charge in last week's win over Scotland, and having gone toe to toe with Australia's Nathan Sharpe in the Rugby Championship, with just a hint of a headbutt thrown in for good measure, he, at 2.03m and 123kg, is clearly not a man to be intimidated.
But then nor is Launchbury, who was brought in by Stuart Lancaster as one of six changes from last week's defeat by Australia to add some beef to the pack.
Two inches shorter and more than a stone lighter, Launchbury is nevertheless a real force and he is looking forward to meeting up with Etzebeth again having beaten him and his South African side in last year's under-20s world championship.
“Eben's doing a great job, he's six months younger than me and he's playing his 10th test so he's doing fantastically,” Launchbury told reporters on Thursday.
“If I can get up to his standards then that's great for me. He wasn't so well known when we played in the under-20s and I've got very fond memories of that game. We pipped it 26-20 but it was close right to the end.
“This Saturday is a big physical game for my first start but I do really enjoy the physical side of things.”
Launchbury's eyes were opened to South African rugby when he spent two months training with Eastern Province two years ago.
Sent by his new club Wasps to work on his fitness, he discovered quickly that it was sink or swim.
“My first day there I was literally straight off the plane and they said 'right, live scrums and mauls tomorrow morning at 8am' so I thought 'ah, so that's how you do things over here' and it was a bit of a culture shock,” he said.
“I'd gone from playing semi-pro rugby so it was a massive step up, the physicality was huge and it really hit me.
“It's a real macho rugby culture but I got used to it quickly and by the end I didn't want to come home.”
Having toughened himself up physically, Launchbury soon found he had some mental development to do as chaos off and on the field at Wasps last year meant he became a regular for the London club when most of his peers in the Premiership were playing reserve games.
“At the start of the season we thought we were going to have a strong squad but we were decimated with injuries to the forwards and there were times when we had eight or nine guys under-20 starting, which in the Premiership is not ideal,” he said.
“So we really had to grow up and play above our age, get stuck into matches and not be too scared of our opposition.
“I played a lot of games last year that might have been stretched over two or three years so it was good for me and I had to take a leading role in that pack.
“It was a steep learning curve for all of us and we've been able to kick on.”
The result is a place in an England set-up geared very much for an assault on the 2015 World Cup with Lancaster giving opportunities to the new generation.
Launchbury, who grew up idolising World Cup winning-captain and fellow lock Martin Johnson, says it is a place he can thrive.
“There are a lot of young guys with not too many caps and there are no egos, no extended groups,” he said.
“Everyone's in it together and it's a fantastic environment for me to learn from.” - Reuters