When Ollie Lawrence was young – and he is still only 21 – there was one England rugby player who captured his imagination. As a strongly built centre growing up in the Midlands, he looked at Manu Tuilagi and instinctively decided he would play the same way. Now here he is, waiting to kick off a Six Nations Championship in place of his injured idol.
It is both a massive opportunity and, potentially, an even more daunting challenge. There is only one Manu and simply trying to impersonate your childhood hero is a surefire route to top-level underachievement. As any old pro will testify, the smarter option is to be the best version of yourself rather than vainly seeking to become somebody you can never be.
How refreshing, then, to listen to a young player who appreciates this and rationalises it perfectly. Plenty of good judges expect the Birmingham-born Lawrence to win a bucket-load of caps and, listening to him explaining why “the new Manu” headlines do not bother him, it is easy to see why. “It’s not a burden for me,” insists the Worcester centre. “If anything it’s flattering. I know I’m never going to be Manu; Manu’s never going to be me. He’s got so many caps for England, he’s probably one of the best centres to ever play. If people want to compare me to him that’s their opinion. I’m not going to fight them on it.”
Boom. Just like that, as so often on the field, the former Bromsgrove schoolboy is away and running gloriously free. Tuilagi may once have inspired him – “I wanted to emulate him because the way he played excited me; that’s probably how my game evolved, watching players like him” – but there is heaps more to Lawrence than relishing a spot of bosh. Tuilagi, recovering from a torn achilles, has 43 caps for England; the smart money is on his young replacement earning substantially more.
That depends, though, on him fulfilling the promise he has long since displayed in other sports. As a young footballer he was on the academy books of Birmingham and Aston Villa – he once scored a penalty to win a game against a Liverpool youth side – until, at the age of 11, the fun disappeared. “Football was my first love and there are so many perks to being a footballer but it’s just something I never saw myself being. The environment of being in an academy at such a young age wasn’t for me. It took the enjoyment out of it and I wasn’t ready for it at that age. I didn’t want football that much.”
He found Warwickshire age‑group cricket – he played in the same side as England’s Tom Banton – more stimulating, particularly the Twenty20 format – “I want to bat and then to field and then go home, I don’t want to be stood on a field for four to five hours.” By his mid‑teens, though, he was representing England Under-16s at rugby – his father, Michael, had played on the wing for Moseley – and had found the ideal outlet for his super‑competitive nature. “Whatever sport I played – even badminton in a PE lesson – I couldn’t lose. It would annoy me if I lost. My competitive nature has come from when I was very young and I took it too far sometimes. There was no part of me that could play against people and just let them win. I took it as a sign of weakness. It is probably one of those traits that I wish I could control sometimes.”
Off the field he now prefers to relax via computer gaming – sometimes for more than seven hours a day – but Lawrence also possesses a thoughtful side. Despite his young age he enjoys the company of slightly older teammates and was particularly affected when one of them, Michael Fatialofa, suffered a career-ending neck injury a year ago. “For me, personally, and quite a few of our closer group, it was hard. To see one of your best mates at the club go through what he went through … it makes you more grateful for the position you’re in. It makes you realise you can’t take things for granted in life because it can be taken away from you at any point.”
The last Worcester centre to play for England, Ben Te’o, also taught him the importance of keeping things in perspective. “His main advice was that you need to be as professional as you can on and off the field but rugby is just a game,” says Lawrence. “You don’t want to let it consume you.” For a while he found it hard to strike that tricky balance but the try-scoring success of another former Warriors teammate, Josh Adams, in a Wales jersey has encouraged him to believe that he, too, can make it big at the top level and add to the initial two caps he earned in the autumn. “We really can take our game and the way we train and play to another level,” he insists.
It does not do any harm that, in Tuilagi’s absence, England clearly need a player such as Lawrence. Regardless of whether he wears 12 or 13, he offers a genuine gain-line threat, possesses those former cricketer’s hands to complement his power and has the footwork to match. Owen Farrell offers a range of qualities at inside-centre but not the barrelling, direct threat that fixes opposition defences. With the classy Henry Slade alongside him and now Paolo Odogwu to add further competition, he knows the next challenge is to mature from promising newcomer into a game‑winning presence.
“Getting a taste of it through the autumn whetted my appetite and made me hungry for more,” Lawrence says. “I went away with a feeling of confidence of what I can offer the team. Test rugby is a huge step up compared to club rugby but it is one that I enjoyed. I want to play for England as many times as I can.”
Eddie Jones will want to see that desire in training later this week and has already warned that the occasional eye-catching moment will not be enough. “He doesn’t want me to be an 8/10 one week and a 4/10 or 5/10 the next. It’s about being a consistent 7, 8 or 9 every week and not dipping below that. At the end of the day I guess that’s what Test rugby is.”
If Lawrence’s stock continues to rise, even his hero Tuilagi may find it difficult to regain his place.