Ollie Lawrence talks about the people who inspired him. He grew up playing and watching many different sports, so there were several. One could be next to him on Saturday and another could be in front of him.
But let’s start with one that won’t be anywhere near Murrayfield and the Six Nations. “Michael Jordan was probably my biggest sporting idol,” said the Bath and England center, who is set to be retired after recovering from a hip injury. “When I was younger, I didn’t watch a lot of American sports, but when The Last Dance came out, that opened my eyes to him as a character and everything he accomplished in his career.
“It wasn’t just his professionalism but the way he pushed the standards in a group and his desire to be the best. That resonated with me and it’s something I wanted to be, in the way I do things. I want to have that desire to be successful, I want to be part of winning teams and do all the little things that add up.
“If you look at his career, you can see the ups and downs, the ups and downs that he went through, and how much he managed to pull through and build a team to be successful. He wasn’t perfect. He had his flaws. But I don’t think anyone is perfect. The characteristics that he had and The standards he maintained were contagious to the people around him.”
There is an obvious question: who in rugby represents those qualities that Jordan brought to the basketball court for so many years? Lawrence is speaking to Mail Sport at The Recreation Ground in Bath and lowers his voice to respond because the person he has in mind is within earshot. Finn Russell; a teammate in his club but a rival this weekend.
Ollie Lawrence is a candidate to start for England in their Six Nations clash against Scotland.
Her sports idol Michael Jordan and the documentary The Last Dance are inspiring Lawrence to find her rhythm
Bath center Lawrence, who has been recovering from injury, has something to prove for England.
“He’s probably sitting right behind me, so I don’t want to exaggerate it too much,” he said. ‘But just as he is; How calm he is and the way he does things with such ease is impressive. He is one of the best fly-halfs in the world and that is contagious; he has been that for us at Bath this season. “When you have someone like that, you have faith that you can win games.”
He is right and England will be on high alert this week as they prepare for the creative threat that Russell represents. But back to Lawrence’s idols. There were several others. “In cricket, it was Kevin Pietersen,” he said. ‘In golf, he was Tiger Woods. In rugby, it was Sonny Bill Williams and Manu (Tuilagi).’
As he was emerging as a teenage prospect in Birmingham, Lawrence looked up to Tuilagi as someone he wanted to emulate. He is now in the England team with him and has played in midfield with him. The problem is (or certainly was) that he was always compared to the man he had admired from afar for so long. Although both are now competing for central positions, Lawrence would like to think he is no longer perceived as Manu Mk II.
“Some fans still classify us as the same player, but what Manu and I bring to the party can be similar, but also very different,” he said. ‘He is much more powerful than me and heavier than me. His impact on the line and his ball-carrying attributes are enormous.
“The way he has played for England over the years has been incredible. He is someone I watched as a child. He was an idol of mine and someone I really wanted to be, so to have the opportunity to play with him in the preparation matches (for the World Cup) were incredible.
‘That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. He has gone from someone who I would see as an idol to someone who is a friend. He has always supported me on my path, he has always had my back and he has wanted the best for me. That’s what you want from a veteran player. He has had bad luck with injuries, but he is one of the best centre-backs to ever wear an England shirt.
Lawrence is hell-bent on forcing himself into that exalted category and has a great pedigree as a natural athlete, who could apply his hand-eye coordination to all sorts of different ball games.
‘I grew up near Harborne; “A small town near there,” she said. “I had a good education. My parents sacrificed a lot to send me to schools that gave me academic and sports opportunities, but sports took priority!
Bath gave him a fresh start last season and he responded with a stunning purple patch that saw him named Premiership Player of the Year.
“In football, I started at Birmingham City’s academy, if you can call it an academy, when I was eight, and then I ended up at Villa for a while. My dad is a Wolves fan but I support Chelsea. I think I went to Sports Direct or JD to buy a shirt with my dad and he expected me to choose the orange one (Wolves), but I ended up choosing a blue one with a Chelsea badge on it, and that was it. I was only four years old. My dad hated it, but I’ve stuck with them ever since, even though they are having a bad smell this season!
‘I played a lot of cricket and was at Warwickshire from the age of 10 to 15. I loved cricket, and I still do now. I wish I could continue playing but I don’t have time. In the summer, when we have a bit of free time, it’s nice to go to the local cricket club, see friends and watch a game. I see it on television too. “If I have time at some point, I will definitely come back home and play for second or third place.”
Nowadays, Lawrence finds time to play golf and enjoys (computer) games, while another passion is fashion. He mentions Anthony Watson as a rugby player with sartorial style and prefers loose clothing and sports shoes.
Like Tuilagi, he likes body art. “I have so many tattoos,” Lawrence said. ‘I made a puzzle that has meaning; You can’t fit every piece of the puzzle, so be yourself. I got it in 2020, 2021. I’m a pretty impulsive person, so I decided I liked the meaning behind it.
‘All my tattoos have a meaning. There is no ink on my body that I know of that has no meaning. I have a lot for my grandparents, my parents. I’ve done my entire back. There are many tattoos and they all have a meaning; They are all personal to me.’
On the field, Lawrence has found additional meaning in his rugby career since becoming unemployed following the collapse of Worcester, where he had risen through the ranks. Bath gave him a fresh start last season and he responded with a stunning purple patch that saw him named Premiership Player of the Year.
Lawrence said The Last Dance ‘opened his eyes’ to Jordan as a character and everything he accomplished in his career.
It also led to England being knocked out of last year’s Six Nations and Lawrence marked his return with a thunderous performance against Italy. He emphatically took advantage of his second chance at Test level after a difficult first phase of his international career, when he was picked by Eddie Jones but chronically underused as a strike weapon of mass destruction.
“At the time it didn’t quite fit me,” he said. “To a certain extent, when I first played for England there was an immature team. I was 21 years old and I was probably trying to chase the game and the big moments and then get lost in all of that. That setback probably helped propel me to where I got last season.”
The second spell with England has been much more productive for Lawrence, but he was a marginal figure during the World Cup last autumn and limited playing time left him determined to make his mark when he returned to Bath.
“Personally, I came back from the World Cup with an element of frustration, so I just wanted to go out on the field and really show what I can do,” he said. ‘I have good memories of the World Cup, but it definitely lit a spark in my game. “I came back hungry to prove my worth.”
Lawrence has done so emphatically, with a series of masterful displays for his club that marked him out as one of the most in-form players of the season and set him up for another chance in the England squad. Adversity has inspired him lately, just as his idols did years ago.