Josh Lewsey: The veteran campaigner fired up by England's trials and tribulations

Ex-Artillery officer who patrols the wing explains how defeats provided England's biggest lesson
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The Independent Online

As England prepare to take on Australia at Twickenham on Saturday, the temptation might be to forget the small matter of June's 51-15 humiliation at the hands of Eddie Jones's team in Brisbane. Why dwell on such a moment when there are the glorious memories of the World Cup final against the same opponents seven months earlier, of Jonny Wilkinson's last-minute heroics, of Martin Johnson's inspirational leadership and of Lawrence Dallaglio's refusal to be beaten?

As England prepare to take on Australia at Twickenham on Saturday, the temptation might be to forget the small matter of June's 51-15 humiliation at the hands of Eddie Jones's team in Brisbane. Why dwell on such a moment when there are the glorious memories of the World Cup final against the same opponents seven months earlier, of Jonny Wilkinson's last-minute heroics, of Martin Johnson's inspirational leadership and of Lawrence Dallaglio's refusal to be beaten?

Josh Lewsey knows why. The Wasps wing, who is one of only two England players who will have started all three games against Australia over the last 12 months (Mike Tindall is the other), understands the lessons that can be learned in adversity. He believes that the iron strength of Sir Clive Woodward's World Cup winners was forged just as much in the disappointment of missing out on three successive Grand Slams with final-day defeats as it was in the heady run of 23 wins in 24 matches highlighted by last year's triumph in Sydney.

"England won the World Cup because they were mentally tougher than any other side," Lewsey said yesterday during a break from England's preparations at their Bagshot base. "That sort of mental toughness is born out of experience, both of winning competitions and of losing. It was by losing Grand Slam games, by losing every now and then at the final hurdle despite the fact that people are calling you the best team in the world, and going through those lows together that England built up that experience. When you get to that stage again you know what you have to do not to slip up."

At the time of the summer massacre in Brisbane - Phil Larder, England's hugely experienced defensive guru, yesterday described it as his most humiliating experience as a coach - it was difficult to imagine anything other than a long and hard road back to the top. Woodward's subsequent departure as head coach, Dallaglio's international retirement and Wilkinson's continuing injury problems might have all been expected to deepen England's woes, but under Andy Robinson, Woodward's successor, there is suddenly a new spring in their step. The sweeping aside of Canada two weeks ago lifted spirits and the manner of Saturday's emphatic victory over South Africa has already generated talk of a new beginning.

However, Lewsey remains as cautious in victory as he was in defeat. "Seven days is a long time in sport," he said. "You can play really well one week and play really badly the next, when everyone will be writing you off and asking questions of you. The reverse of that is that you can turn things around just as quickly, but we're not going to get ahead of ourselves. We played well last week against South Africa, who are a quality team, though I think it's fair to say that they didn't play well. They admit that themselves. This weekend will be a lot more testing and we're not going to get carried away with what we've done so far.

"There were lots of reasons in the summer why we didn't perform, but we've drawn a line under it. Now we're looking forward to this Saturday. It's a chance for some of the players to lay some ghosts to rest, though I think we've done that already. Obviously winning is important, but this is a building period and we don't want to get ahead of ourselves. We need to start playing some rugby again and to enjoy ourselves."

Lewsey's philosophical approach is that of a man who has packed plenty into his 27 years, both on and off the rugby pitch. His progress as a player was held back by his Army career and it was only after he gave up the latter following his graduation from Sandhurst as an officer in the Royal Artillery three years ago that he was able to concentrate on sport.

First capped on England's "tour from hell" Down Under in 1998, Lewsey made only three more full international appearances over the next five years before taking full advantage of his chance halfway through last year's Six Nations' Championship. Lewsey scored two tries against Italy and has been a fixture in the England side ever since.

"I now put myself under far less pressure than I used to," he said. "I used to worry a lot about the consequences of how I'd played. Maybe Sandhurst did that for me, but I think it was also the result of not being picked for three and a half years. After a while if you're only making the 'A' team those sort of disappointments make you stop putting pressure on yourself. You stop thinking: 'I've got to play for England, I've got to play international rugby or my career will be a failure.'

"I changed things round so that my goal was to enjoy myself every time I took the field. If you do that and you put everything into your game and your training, then regardless of what happens in terms of selection - or anything else that's out of your control - you still get a level of contentment and satisfaction from how you've played.

"Robbo [Andy Robinson] mentioned it last weekend before the South Africa game. He said: 'There are people in this room who've had disappointments in terms of selection. This is your time now.' Coz [Martin Corry] and some of the other guys felt that personally as well. They knew it was time for them to perform. They had the opportunity to do so last weekend and they took it."

As one of the few players who have straddled the Woodward and Robinson regimes - Jason Robinson, Tindall and Steve Thompson are the only other survivors from the World Cup final starting line-up - Lewsey senses the change more than most.

"It was inevitable that there would be a turn-around period, particularly when you look at the sort of people we've lost," he said. "I'm not talking about people just as players but as leaders. That older generation has moved on and now it's for the next generation to settle in over the next couple of years and for us to uncover the next Martin Johnsons and Jason Leonards."

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