The Gallagher Premiership’s London derby takes place this weekend, as Harlequins host Saracens for a hotly anticipated clash at the Twickenham Stoop. The league leaders take on the reigning champions, in a scintillating match-up that is brimming with international talent.
The England boys are back, with the headline battle seeing Marcus Smith go toe-to-toe with Owen Farrell, to establish the bragging rights within the nation’s capital. However, a certain former Wasp has been generating quite a lot of buzz, since returning to the Premiership ahead of the 2023/24 season.
Joe Launchbury was left without a club, following the financial collapse of Wasps in October 2022. The lock soon found a new home in Japan, yet an unfortunate hand injury curtailed his on-field minutes for Toyota Verblitz. Now, Launchbury is back in the famous quarters, and discussed his experiences from a short spell out in the Far East.
“The rugby side probably impressed me to be honest. We don’t see much of Japanese rugby in England through TV rights and non-exposure, you don’t really see or hear anything about it. So I went there a little bit cold, didn’t really know quite what to expect. I heard a few things, had spoken to a few guys who played out there, but no, I was really impressed.
“The team I played for were predominantly coached and run by New Zealand coaches and Steve Hansen, the two times-winning World Cup head coach was our head coach. It was a really professional system, a really professional club. I didn’t play as much as I was hoping to, breaking my hand quite early on, but in terms of experience, both from a rugby point of view and for us as a family going there, with all that happened in England, it was just the best timing for us to go out there and do something completely different, experience a different way of life.
“I would never have gone if what happened hadn’t happened. As crazy as it sounds, I’m thankful for the opportunity to go. I’m pretty proud of myself and my family for the way that we got on with it. We didn’t moan and mope around and within a few weeks we were out in Japan and doing something pretty cool and something pretty different. That goes for all the guys really. It’s great to play against guys who you know pretty well and have gone through those times, great to see them back on their feet and playing at different clubs.”
Launchbury last featured for England at the tail end of the Eddie Jones era. The 32-year-old made a single replacement appearance in the 2022 Six Nations, for a 19-minute cameo in a defeat to Ireland. England’s second-row ranks have taken a recent hit, with David Ribbans having packed his bags for Toulon at the end of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
However, Launchbury revealed that he has no immediate intentions to build on his England caps, yet admitted that he has been in discussion with Steve Borthwick. Speaking at today’s Harlequins’ press conference, Launchbury revealed that he was set to join the wider Rugby World Cup training squad, yet a hamstring injury kept him from joining up with the squad ahead of the trip to France.
“I had options to stay in England straight away (after Wasps collapse), but I was desperate to get out and try something different. The idea of going to an English club within a fortnight of it happening and it all being straight back into the same, I think I would have struggled with. The idea to go away, I knew it probably wasn’t best for my international aspirations, but it was the best thing for me and that was why I chose to do that.
“And as for this year, again, I was fortunate to have a few opportunities both in England and overseas. But I felt for me personally, I still have a big desire to really try to play well, not necessarily international aspirations, but to keep proving myself in this league. This league, for all its failings and for all the stuff off the field, I still think the product on the pitch keeps us up there as one of the best leagues in the world.
“I spoke to Steve (Borthwick) a lot during my time in Japan, and on my return, I was going to be involved in the initial (Rugby World Cup) camp but I got injured. I have not really spoken to him much since then, he has obviously had a busy time. I don’t think I am going to sit here and retire from international rugby because I don’t feel that is something I need to do. I haven’t had a huge involvement over the last period of time so it is not something I need to do.
“I love playing for England, it is the proudest part of my rugby career and I don’t think I would turn down an opportunity to play, but I am aware of where I am. The situation England are in, it is the end of a World Cup cycle and is probably a good opportunity for them. They had a great achievement in the World Cup to get where they got to, and that has probably allowed him (Borthwick) an element of freedom in his selection.
“It allows him a period to maybe go down a slightly younger route, and as an England supporter that is probably what you would understand him to do. I am not going to sit here and retire from international rugby, but I am not sitting here waiting for the phone to ring. I am here to play for Harlequins and I am loving the balance of playing here and being back with the family.”
Launchbury has certainly followed up on his intentions, and has promptly nailed down his name to the Harlequins number four jersey. Be it for the Harlequins Academy or the London era of Wasps, Launchbury certainly savoured the London derbies in the early days of his career. Coming full circle from his days in the Quins Academy, the lock also discussed how the younger Stoop stars are preparing for this weekend’s clash.
“I always really enjoyed them (London derbies). We used to play the double-header at the start of the year, usually the first game of the year. I used to love that, used to think that’s the best way to start the season off the back of a long pre-season. You play against a London rival on the first day at Twickenham, and it usually used to be in the sun. I used to love that.
“So, I think the rivalry thing in sport is interesting, if like a huge thing for supporters and it’s a really important thing for the players. But it’s also, you can’t get too caught up in all that. For us, it’s about how good we can be, but (it’s) also Saracens that weekend. Yeah, it’s a great opportunity for us to sort of put a marker down and show them where we’re at.”
“We know we’ve started season well, but that’s all it is, a start, isn’t it? And this weekend, is probably our first proper, proper test at home against… we can talk about Saracens all day about how good they are, like against a high-quality outfit. So, there’s a couple of things at play, really. There’s the chance to go against the best team in the league. But it’s also a chance to play a big derby game.
“So yeah, so it was an exciting week. In terms of some of the younger guys, I feel like we’re in a really good spot in terms of the way we prepare and train. We’ve kept everything the same. So just try and make things look familiar to them as possible. I feel like it’s a good game for us. They’ve (Saracens) come at a really good time. It’s a great test for us. I think like going back to that point about the league, I feel like this weekend, having a whole fixture list for the derby games, it’s pretty exciting. I think it’s a really positive step for the league.”
Coming back to Harlequins as an experienced veteran, Launchbury boasts 13 seasons of top level experience and a wealth of international knowledge. The lock has now been bestowed a leadership role at the Stoop, and expressed how impressive he’s found the younger talents in the squad.
“Yeah it’s something that earlier on in my career all I wanted to do was play, I didn’t worry too much about that stuff, I just wanted to get out and play at at the weekends. But as I’ve got older I’ve really enjoyed that side of it, integrating with the younger guys and helping them at the start of their careers.
“I really enjoy that part of it, and I enjoy the leadership side, getting towards a performance at the weekend. That part of it maybe comes quite easily and quite normally for me at the moment after what I’ve done in the last few years, and it’s a huge part of the game that I really, really enjoy. But first and foremost they (Harlequins) brought me here to play well on the pitch as well, so I’ve been really pleased I’ve strung a few games together as well.
“A lot of the guys I know quite well and others I’ve played against a lot over the years too. You feel like you know them well, but then you come into the environment and I’ve been really impressed by a lot of the young guys as well. I look at some of the guys in the pack, like Sam Riley and others in the front-row, Fin Baxter at loosehead. These guys are young, and the performances they’ve put in, perhaps when you play against them you might not realise quite how good they are. But when you come into the same environment as them you can really see it.
“Quins have a really good balance between experience and then younger guys who are really impressive too. In terms of strength we’re in a really, really good place. You can put a team out and know that what trains against us is equally as good. We’re in a good spot but we also know it’s not played on paper unfortunately.”
“Yeah, time’s pretty scary isn’t it? I remember being on the receiving end of the kind of conversations I’m now having with some of our younger guys, about not taking it for granted and that it goes in a flash, and it really, really does. I’d like to think that I’ve got a few more years left in me yet, but now I’m regarded as one of the older guys in the squad.
“So something that I didn’t think would happen for a while has definitely crept up on me. But I’m still enjoying it as much as ever. Having that year away in Japan, you question how you’ll handle coming back to England, how you’ll adapt to how hard the league is, the attritional nature of playing week in, week out. You ask yourself those little questions, but I’ve come back and absolutely loved it. I’ve really enjoyed playing over the last few weeks and I’m really enjoying the club.