I remember the first time I spoke to Joe Launchbury. It was prior to the Wasps vs Harlequins fixture on October 2nd 2016. Big Joe was actually injured that game, but was milling around the players entrance, happily chatting away to spectators. He kindly posed for a photo with my daughter and two of my nieces, who were then treated to a display of outstanding rugby from Wasps, who ran out comfortable winners. Good times.
Joe Launchbury before Wasps vs Harlequins, 02.10.2016
Since that date, both the club and Launchbury himself have experienced some incredible highs and some lows. Wasps finished top of the league that season, and I was at the semi final against Leicester to see our skipper put in an unbelievable performance in that game to help see Wasps through. In the same season, he started every six nations game for England, who ran out tournament winners, despite losing their final game in Dublin. Launchbury was man of the match in the games against both Italy and Wales, adding to the same award he got against South Africa as part of the Autumn internationals. Heartbreak was to come in the Premiership final, despite his best efforts, but the 2016-17 season is undoubtedly one the big second row can look back on with immense pride.
Joe Launchbury before Wasps vs Sale, 02.09.2017
However, it is fair to say he has suffered with some wretched luck, as well as paying the price for competing against arguably the strongest set of second rows England has ever produced. Even though his performances and individual accolades in that season were well documented, he missed the cut for the British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand, with countrymen Mario Itoje, George Kruis and Courtney Lawes all selected ahead of him, along with Iain Henderson and Alyn Wyn Jones. That same English trio reduced his minutes in the 2019 World Cup significantly, with him not featuring in any of the matchday 23 picks once the tournament went into the knock out stages. In the space of two years, despite being a consistent pick in almost every England international squad since 2012, he missed out on two of the biggest events any English international rugby player will ever take part in.
I was a little worried about what impact this might have on him when he returned, and whether he might decide to seek a fresh challenge somewhere else. Still a relatively young man, there would be a huge number of clubs in both this country and France who would love to have Joe Launchbury on their books. You get consistency, you get commitment, and you get an absolute world class lock forward who impacts on every game he plays. I have sometimes spent chunks of games just watching him, watching how he hits rucks, defends line outs, gets around the park and tackles himself into the ground. Though clearly not the most vocal, he absolutely leads by example in every game he plays. You will never find him hiding, never find him not demanding the ball, even if he is struggling to make yardage. A leader in every sense, Wasps record with him compared to without him is significantly different. Consequently, the news that he had signed a new contract with Wasps was fantastic to hear, and a lift to supporters who had endured a difficult few months watching a number of ‘big name’ players head to the exit gates.
On the 21st December I am hoping ‘our Joe’ will be fit enough to lead Wasps out against the same opposition as when I first met him. Ticket sales are going well and the Christmas Cracker, prior to last year, has often produced games of real quality. Take five minutes to watch the highlights of the Bath 2016 game and Gloucester 2017 match if you can, to enjoy some tries of real individual and team quality, to take you back to the style of rugby that Wasps, used to produce on a frequent basis. Launchbury was a key ingredient in both of those victories, but did not play when Bath beat Wasps 24-14 at the Ricoh around this time last year. Spot the pattern.
Regardless of the result on Saturday, the last home game of what has been a disappointing 2019 has been brightened for me by Joe Launchbury committing himself further to the club. Let us hope he can lead the players to a display that matches his talent on the 21st December. If that happens, it will be a very merry Christmas.
Thanks for reading.