The comment that irked ‘extraordinary’ Courtney Lawes but ultimately got Brive their Jonny Wilkinson

Alex Spink
Could Courtney Lawes be Brive's Jonny Wilkinson?

Could Courtney Lawes be Brive's Jonny Wilkinson?

The bizarre moment Courtney Lawes knew a second division club in France was the place he would leave his beloved Northampton to join can be revealed today.

Saints’ Premiership-winning captain was being courted by French clubs Montpellier and Provence at the turn of the year. There was also significant interest from Japan.

Out of the blue he received a message from Simon Gillham, president of mid-table Pro D2 outfit Brive, introducing himself, outlining the club’s ambitious vision – and how they proposed to put him at the heart of it.

Scale the mountain

“I’d got hold of Courtney’s number and decided to text him directly,” Gillham revealed to Planet Rugby. “Literally, he replied to me 10 minutes later.”

Straight to the point, Gillham told Lawes he would be “great for Brive”. He said the 1997 European champions had plans to scale the mountain again and that he could have the same transformative effect Jonny Wilkinson had on Toulon between 2012-15.

That got Lawes‘ attention and the big man flew over with his agent to meet Gillham and the club’s British share holder Ian Osbourne. It was there he was introduced to Head of Rugby Pierre-Henry Broncan and challenged in a most unexpected way.

“Pierre-Henry walks into the room in his very Pierre-Henry way,” recounts Gillham. “He shakes hands with Courtney and says, ‘Hello, I’m Pierre-Henry, if you’re looking to come to a retirement home then don’t come here’.

“That was basically his opening gambit. It really annoyed Courtney, but in a good way. Courtney listened then, very clearly, said: ‘If I’m going anywhere I’m not going to be sitting on my laurels and if I come to Brive it is to take you back to the Top 14’.”

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Lawes proceeded to remind Broncan, whose career includes a spell at Bath and another working for Eddie Jones, that his first season at Northampton was spent getting Saints out of English rugby’s second division.

“He said that he relished that challenge,” adds Gillham. “That being in Pro D2 was not so much the issue for him, more the ambition of the club.

“We showed him the project we have at the club and the plans – we are building a whole new stand, investing in youth [we have four players in the France squad for the upcoming U20 World Cup, more than anyone else] – and we chatted for the whole day.”

Lawes liked what he saw but, with a wife [Jessica] and four children, it could not just be about him. Before he put pen to paper they all came over to take a look.

“They had a weekend, they looked at houses and schools, which I loved because Brive is an incredible family club,” says Gillham. “Jess then came over with her father to visit more houses.

“They came to watch our game against local rivals Aurillac where there was a bit of argy-bargy. At the end I saw Jess and she was laughing. ‘I just phoned Courtney to tell him about this,’ she said. ‘He says, ‘I’m really looking forward to that!'”

Two-year contract

So it was that Lawes signed a two-year deal, then parked the move to concentrate on steering Saints to a Champions Cup semi-final before, last weekend, signing off by winning the Premiership title.

“We are looking for a leader and we believe, like Victor Vito at La Rochelle and Jonny at Toulon, Courtney will inspire everyone,” Gillham adds. “Can you imagine all these young players we have at Brive, thinking, ‘We’re about to be playing with Courtney Lawes’. I think it’s brilliant.

“The way he carries himself, the way he looks after himself, his diet, what he eats, everything is so important to him. We’d definitely like to think he will stay with us and finish his career here.

“Remember Simon Shaw playing at Toulon at 40, Said Hireche, an extraordinary servant of our club, he’s been captain for the last five years, and has just finished at the age of 39. Then there’s Jimmy Gopperth at Provence. He’s 40, has had a fantastic season and has just signed a new one-year deal.

“Courtney is only 35 and he seems to be getting better and better. His game against Leinster in the [Champions Cup] semi-finals was just extraordinary.”

Which explains why he the 105-times capped England icon is now regularly asked about next summer’s British and Irish Lions tour.

Playing in France might render him ineligible for England duty but the Lions are free to pick whom they choose – assuming the player’s club is prepared to make him available.

Gillham’s response: “He hasn’t asked us, that’s not a discussion we’ve had.

“If we’re in the final obviously he’d have to be here for the final. I’m sure we could sort something out after that. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

The proposed date for next season’s Pro D2 final is May 24, the Lions’ first tour match in Australia a full month later.

Both club and player know there is an awful lot of rugby to be played between now and then. There is absolutely no hurry to make a call on it now.

But with Lawes, you might not want to bet against a conversation being had somewhere further down the line.

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