Rugby

Let's not focus on 'dwarfgate'

2012-01-19 07:51
Courtney Lawes (AFP)

London - England lock tells Oliver Brown that infamous Rugby World Cup night was hugely overblown and deserves to be put aside.

Courtney Lawes, just like all present in that Queenstown bar one fateful September evening last year, would rather forget about the farrago that was 'Dwarfgate'. He takes the view that the entire episode at the Altitude nightclub, featuring Mike Tindall's blonde 'friend' and a generous quotient of dwarves, forms an obsession peculiar to journalists. The Six Nations Championship is coming, time to move on. Trouble is, though, that the fallout from the night - so richly expressive of the stupidity of sports stars on tour - resonates to this day.

It was even raised, in oblique fashion, at the Golden Globes. Peter Dinklage, who won the award for best supporting TV actor during Sunday night's ceremony, urged the worldwide audience to look up the name of Martin Henderson on Google. Henderson, standing 4ft 2in, appeared in two Harry Potter films and sustained severe injuries after being hurled outside his local pub by a drunken rugby fan. Given that the incident happened only three weeks after the England players' 'Mad Midget Weekender' at the World Cup, he suspects that it was a copycat attack.

Lawes is, initially, uncomfortable about revisiting the affair. "That's gone now," he says. But as a teetotaller, who turned up at Altitude with most of his colleagues in an advanced state of inebriation, he offers a valuable unfiltered lens on precisely what happened in New Zealand. At last, the 6ft 7in lock, who arrives for this interview at a Stevenage warehouse with his injured right knee in a harness, decides to open up.

"Mate, it was all blown well out of proportion, like," Lawes says in his thick Northampton accent. "I think I went on three nights out the whole time I was there.

"Obviously we got there and we went out, which was good just to get to know the place. It didn't cause any trouble at all. And then we went to Queenstown, and we were given a night by the coaches to have fun, let off a bit of steam. You have to, before a big competition like that. It's only one night. It's not going to affect two months worth of rugby. Well, it wouldn't have done."

The caricature - as laid out by the Rugby Football Union's leaked review - of an England team on the tiles and out of control is one that Lawes vehemently disputes. "In terms of partying all the time, that's b------s.

"We weren't at all. Everybody would crack on with training the next day. By the end it was one big mess, really."

What, though, of 'Dwarf Night' itself? After all, even England's footballers would have struggled to confect such a preposterous tale of bar-room excess.

"What wasn't said was that the dwarves were paid to be there," Lawes counters. "That's sort of their job, entertaining the p----- guys. I wasn't there to begin with and I don't drink, but it wasn't like the guys were bouncing around random fans. They were just having a laugh with these dwarves who were part of the act, who worked at the club, doing promotional stuff for the guests.

"I got there before all the carnage. I didn't get into any trouble.

"Everyone was p----- when I got there. We knew that it wouldn't get lively until about 11 o'clock, so me and Woody [Tom Wood] went back to the hotel, got some food and headed out again. By that time, Tinds [Tindall] was just smashed. I know you've got to take a bit of responsibility yourself, but it happens. He drunk a bit too much and he got kissed on the head. And now he's in massive trouble for not too bad a crime."

Tindall's England career appears, indeed, to be over after his World Cup ignominy, since interim coach Stuart Lancaster neglected to name the former captain in either the elite or Saxons squads.

Lawes reserves greater sympathy for his young Northampton team-mates, Dylan Hartley and Chris Ashton, who drew equal opprobrium when they were accused of making lewd comments to Annabel Newton, a maid at their Dunedin hotel.

"You think, 'How can this much s--- be coming out towards players when they've not been charged with anything?' They've not been arrested. They haven't broken any laws and yet they're being absolutely peppered."

It is Lawes's misfortune that his fledgling England career, encompassing only 13 caps, has coincided with such a fearful mess. His injury problems have proved recurrent, too - his latest, an anterior cruciate ligament tear, is likely to mean he will miss the first Six Nations game against Scotland at Murrayfield on Feb 4.

At least the appointment of Lancaster, whom he met after being elevated to the Saxons aged 20, affords the chance of a swift restoration. "He seems a great guy. He's got his head focused on the job and it looks like he knows what he's doing."

Does he mind that England's traditional pre-tournament jaunt to Portugal has, for obvious reasons, been switched to Lancaster's home patch of Leeds? "Not at all. I don't feel the need to go off to different countries to train. You just train hard."

Lawes, with a long-levered build more becoming of a basketball player, cuts a fearsome figure.

He experienced an explosive introduction to the England camp, not merely by his emphatic physical statements at the ruck and maul but by handing off for Ashton's famous length-of-the-field try against Australia at Twickenham in November 2010.

It was little wonder he enjoyed such preferment under Johnson, given that Lawes's raw tenacity evoked memories of the ultimate second-rower in his youth. The 23 year-old embodies the RFU's increased emphasis on physical conditioning.

You would go so far as to say that Lawes, who has recently signed a contract extension to keep him at Northampton until 2015, is transforming popular perceptions of the classic power forward. "You can't have too many standard ball-carrying players, because you won't win any rucks," he argues.

"Now, there'll be a little bit more give towards athleticism." To see Lawes at work here, lifting the weights with a preternatural ease, is perhaps to see the future of the national team as envisaged by Lancaster: disciplined, dedicated - and quite emphatically dwarf-free.

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