As an emblem of a Premiership season of exciting rugby undermined by financial strife, the smile of Ollie Lawrence as he collected his silver bowl as Player of the Season in Wednesday’s awards ceremony is a fine place to start. It immediately brought to mind Lawrence’s entirely different demeanour during the demise of his former club, Worcester Warriors, in the early and upsetting weeks of the campaign.
You won’t find Worcester’s 45-14 loss away to London Irish in mid-September on the Premiership’s website, as it has been expunged from the records. But, believe me, it took place and the image of Lawrence after the game at the Gtech Community Stadium is indelible: his head half bowed and the customary smile replaced by a weary countenance as he gave awkward responses. “I mean, our focus at the moment is take each game as it comes,” he said, in the knowledge, surely, that there were not going to be many more. The club the Birmingham-born Lawrence had joined at the age of 15 was sliding towards administration and expulsion from the Premiership.
Spring forward to this month, and I was a member of the seven-strong judging panel of writers, broadcasters and podcasters who judged the award. During a complex discussion we eventually compiled an eminent shortlist of Lawrence alongside Sale’s Rob du Preez, Saracens’ Owen Farrell and Leicester’s Jasper Wiese. But only one of these had switched horses mid-stream – Lawrence joined Bath on loan in October – and then won back his place in the England team.
Remember, Lawrence was injured for most of the previous season and also carried the millstone of comments about his initial turn for England in 2020-21 in a book by the then-head coach Eddie Jones. “His attitude was not hungry or disciplined enough,” Jones wrote, although he also held out the suggestion that the bustling centre with nifty footwork might yet become “one of the best players in the world”.
Lawrence began at Bath by travelling to training in a car full of fellow former Worcester players, but he settled in swiftly. Insiders say he embraced the change, and if he might not be described as the greatest fan of the gym, his rugby sparkled. Against Saracens away, Lawrence almost toyed with his starry hosts, carrying one-handed and setting up a try for Joe Cokanasiga after a mazy run. A left-footed dab into the corner made a try for Matt Gallagher against Toulon. All in the context of Bath finishing eighth in the Premiership – so this is the first time the award winner has come from a team outside the top four.
When the England fly-half Marcus Smith was asked to assess Bath ahead of his club Harlequins meeting them in April, he said: “They’ve got some electric backs who, if you give them time and space, are able to cut you up” – and in listing four names to support the point, he mentioned Lawrence first.
Lawrence was not picked in the first England squad named by Steve Borthwick in January. But injuries to Elliot Daly and Dan Kelly, and a suspension for Manu Tuilagi, helped give him his chance. And he took it with five minutes as a substitute for Joe Marchant in the home loss to Scotland, then a start against Italy, when the instructions from Borthwick, Lawrence says, were simple: “You’ve got to kick the front door down.”
Another start in the win away to Wales included a try, as Lawrence’s power made a good foil to Henry Slade at outside centre. In the changing rooms, Lawrence chatted with the Princess of Wales, patron of the RFU, about how her son George was moving into contact rugby from tag, and playing on the wing. “I said it’s probably best to stay out there,” Lawrence recalled. But if he had re-found his sense of humour, he also cleared out his old home during a Six Nations fallow week, and never stopped thinking about Worcester friends who lost their jobs.
Having scored four tries in Bath’s last five matches, Lawrence’s next aim must be to consolidate his second coming as an England international in the World Cup in September. With Tuilagi still around – he replaced the hamstrung Lawrence against Ireland in March – selection is not a shoo-in. But it is fair to assume Lawrence will be ready for the fight.