Josh Lewsey: 'There is real life, and then there is your own little lot'

England's attacking fate hinges on a man whose old army comrades ensure he knows it is only a game. Tim Glover talks to him
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The Independent Online

Josh Lewsey had a good Lions tour, and not many people from these shores can say that, but even he was Canute-like against the Black tide that swept into Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland. It was a tough six weeks in New Zealand and there was plenty of time for introspection, but for Lewsey, who used to be a terrible worrier, it is water under the bridge.

A surfer in his spare time, he has learnt to ride the peaks and troughs, and one thing that has helped him embrace a laissez-faire attitude is news from the front line of his former comrades in the Royal Artillery. When his career as a professional rugby player was more the stuff of nightmares than dreams (he was, after all, implicated in England's Tour of Hell), Lewsey had a drastic change of heart. He followed Lord Kitchener's advice and joined the Army.

He continued to play for Wasps, but his focus was on officer training at Sandhurst. He might clean out the toilets in the barracks before driving over to Shepherd's Bush for a match at Loftus Road, the club's old stamping ground. After much soul-searching Lewsey opted for rugby, but he keeps in touch with the friends who became professional soldiers.

"Some of them have just come back from Arctic survival training in Norway, where the temperature was minus 45," he said. "You have to chuckle. They have had some pretty amazing exper-iences and gone through horrific things. One of them was shot in Iraq, and fortunately he's recovering. The thing is, it helps me to keep everything in perspective. There's real life and then there's your own little lot. I look on what they do in admiration, not envy."

It's a fair bet that those who survived the Arctic look on Lewsey in admiration and enough envy to stop a tank. At 29 he has established himself as one of the most dangerous threequarters in the world. He should win his 38th cap against Wales at Twickenham on Saturday, when he will be looking to add to his 21 tries for his country, and, while others have had a season ticket to the orthopaedic surgeon, he has missed only three of England's past 34 internationals.

And he is as versatile as a Land Rover. On the Tour of Hell in 1998 he made his England debut against the All Blacks in Dunedin and a week later faced them again in Auckland. The first time was at centre, the second at stand-off. He has subsequently spent most of his time on the wing, but recently there has been another sea change. Wasps have been playing him in the centre, where he has displayed some nifty skills. The full-back position was the domain of Mark van Gisbergen, the son of a Dutch-born farmer, who was recruited from Waikato - as a stand-off. However, no sooner had Van Gisbergen, a top-class goalkicker, qualified for England on grounds of residency last September than the ground turned to quicksand.

Promoted to the England squad for the autumn internationals, the New Zealander became affected by the whole caboodle and his form, which had been hot, evaporated. With Jason Robinson retiring from Test rugby, the coach, Andy Robinson, confined Van Gisbergen to the bench and played fast and Lewsey at full-back.

"The question everybody asks me is what is my favourite position. To tell you the truth I don't care, just as long as I'm involved in everything. By that I don't just mean touching the ball. I find it very frustrating if I'm not actively engaged. I really enjoy playing centre, but if England want me in the back three that's fine. I'd like to think I've got the skills to play in different positions."

Yesterday Lewsey played full-back for Wasps at Bath, which strongly suggests he will carry on as the England No 15 even though the fault line in the autumn was identified at centre, where Mike Tindall and Jamie Noon are two barrels of the same shotgun.

"We're trying to develop an attacking framework and it takes time," Lewsey said. "It depends on who plays with whom and whether everybody understands their role. For example, Iain Balshaw produced his best rugby when he was playing outside Mike Catt. We have a world- class platform from the pack and in defence, and in the set-piece everything is in place. We can shut up shop if we have to and, like New Zealand, we can play the dark arts. All we've got to do is get the balance right. The litmus test is against Wales. They are deserved champions because they played such adventurous rugby, but if we perform at our best we'll take some beating.

"We've already shown we can compete with the All Blacks. I have to say the Lions were too good to lose the series 3-0, but we were up against one of the best teams ever to run on to a rugby field. It's very difficult to say certain things without people taking offence, but we were too talented not to perform better than we did."

The club-country saga over what constitutes the ideal preparation for England continued over the weekend, when Robinson's request for his players to be rested was largely ignored. Lewsey, for one, was keen to play. With Wasps making a premature exit from the Heineken Cup he had been given a week off and spent it in New York.

"I'd played in almost every game and it had been quite intense and physical, so the club told me to take a break and come back refreshed. That's why I was keen to play against Bath. There's no substitute for game time. New York was absolutely brilliant. Nobody knows what the hell rugby is and nobody knows who you are. I did all the tourist stuff."

Lewsey admits that Wasps' failure to make the quarter- finals in Europe "really hurt". "I think we could have beaten Toulouse but we were a bit headstrong in trying to take everything through the middle. We had been playing some great rugby. Still, it will stand us in good stead to win the Premiership for the fourth time in a row."

To do so Wasps will need Van Gisbergen at full-back and Lew-sey at centre which, reading between the lines, is where he is happiest. Doesn't the England situation make life a little awkward in the Wasps changing-room? "There's always plenty of banter, but Mark and I get on very well. I've told him he's a class player and that when he gets his chance he'll grab it.

"He'll be fine. Everybody wants to play for England, and if you miss out the disappointment is huge. The important thing is not to get down. You've got to keep a smile on your face. If you don't you're in the wrong game. I had to learn that. Everybody has their ups and downs. I was left out of the England team for five years."

Ah yes, the bad old days. After he returned from the southern hemisphere eight years ago, battered, bloodied and unbowed, the line from Clive Woodward went dead. That was when Lewsey marched off to Sandhurst. "At first I genuinely thought I could do both jobs, but fairly soon I realised I was kidding myself. You can't play at being an officer in the Army. A decision had to be made and it was a tough one. I used to spend so much time worrying about my rugby, about who might be ahead of me in the England pecking order. In the end, is there any point dwelling on who might be doing this or why you haven't been picked for that? You could drive yourself crazy."

By the time of the World Cup next year Lewsey could be playing for a new club. He has not renewed his contract at Wasps and has spoken to other clubs, rumoured to be Toulouse and Bristol. "Whatever happens, it will not be based purely on a rugby decision. There are other factors involved. Nothing's happened as yet." Ideally it would be a place near the sea where he could ride the waves and walk his two boxers.

First, though, it's the Six Nations and a meeting with the land of his mother, Mair, who comes from Cwmllynfell at the foot of the Black Mountain. Owen Joshua Lewsey (it's as well his surname wasn't Simpson) was born in Bromley and educated at Watford GS and Bristol University, where he studied physiology and biochemistry. He could have played for Wales.

"What makes this Six Nations more exciting is the friendships we made on the Lions tour. Michael Owen said he was surprised to find that the English lads were not after all an arrogant bunch. I asked him where he had got such a parochial view. Had he been reading the Western Mail all his life? There will be nothing given on the field, but afterwards we'll have a few beers. That's what friends do."


NAME: Owen Joshua Lewsey.

BORN: 30 November 1976, Bromley, Kent.

VITAL STATS: 5ft 11in, 14st 6lb.

POSITION: Full-back/wing/centre.

EARLY DOORS: Watford GS; Amersham & Chiltern RFC; Bristol University; Sandhurst.

CLUB CAREER: London Wasps 1994-96; Bristol 1996-98; Wasps 1998-current; won Heineken Cup and Zurich Premiership, 2004.

INTERNATIONAL CAREER: Debut 20 June 1998 v New Zealand, Dunedin. Total: 37 caps, 21 tries.

HIGHLIGHTS: Won Hong Kong Sevens, 2002. Equalled record for most tries in a Test, five, versus Uruguay, 2003 World Cup; MBE after winning World Cup. British Lions tour to New Zealand, 2005.