GROWING UP FAST

Not so long ago Josh Lewsey was one of England's bright young things. Now he is a senior member of a rebuilt side with much to prove. He talked to Chris Hewett about winning gloriously, losing badly and why he thinks international rugby is on the verge of a thrilling attacking era
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The Independent Online
Leaders come in many varieties and, as Mel Brooks pointedly suggested with his one-liner about presidents - "If they don't do it to their wives, they do it to the country" - not all of them are universally admired.

A little over a year ago, the England rugby team had more leaders than it knew what to do with, every last one of whom commanded instant attention and the deepest respect. There was Martin Johnson, of course. There was Lawrence Dallaglio as well, not to mention Neil Back and Jason Leonard and Phil Vickery. When that quintet confronted the Wallabies in the 2003 World Cup final, they had the small matter of 366 caps between them.

Fourteen months of retirements, injuries and losses of form later, the red rose has more than a tinge of green about it. Andy Robinson, obliged to identify a new captain in time for the three-match autumn series at Twickenham even though he had still to be confirmed as head coach, found himself in Hobson's choice territory and plumped for the only realistic candidate available to him: a certain Mr Wilkinson of Newcastle. When Jonny Boy promptly injured himself on Premiership duty and withdrew from the November Tests, all the selectors saw was a wide open field with no one in it. Mike Tindall? Steve Borthwick? Old Mother Hubbard? In the end, Robinson asked his namesake Jason, a supreme individualist who treats tactics the way a dog treats a lamp-post, to shoulder the burden.

Robinson never asked to be captain and to this day he does not pretend to be one in the traditional "my way or the highway" sense. "I'm not claiming to be the best thing since sliced bread; I'll learn as I go along," he said before leading England for the first time, against Canada almost three months ago. "There has been a lot of disappointment since the World Cup. It's up to the senior players to start moving things forward. There are good decision-makers throughout the team and I'll use their expertise. This is not about one person."

Josh Lewsey is one of those senior players. He blinked with surprise when this salient fact was put to him, but happily accepted it after a few seconds of silent communion with himself. "Yes, I suppose you might call me a senior member of the team," he acknowledged. "Compared with some of the others, I've been around a fair old time. We've lost so much in the way of experience since the World Cup, and all that know-how can't be replaced with a snap of the fingers.

"You can't overestimate the influence Johnson and Dallaglio and the rest had on that side. We were christened `Dad's Army' during that tournament, which made me laugh out loud. Why? Because I knew how stubborn those older players were. How brilliant they were at finding ways to win tight matches. How they simply refused to lose. The people who mocked us didn't know the half of it. Now those players have gone, it's down to others, me included, to step up.

"It's bound to take time, but the thought of helping rebuild the team, of restoring the mental toughness that made us great, really excites me. Right from a very young age, I've been fairly chopsy on the pitch - I think that's well known in and around the English game - and I don't suppose I'll ever change, although whether or not anyone ever listens to a word I say is another matter entirely. I'm sure I've spent much of my career shouting at an audience of one."

Twenty-nine caps into his international career, Lewsey's association with the England team can be divided into three distinct and contrasting periods. The first, on the 1998 "tour from hell", earned him three caps - two against the All Blacks in Dunedin and Auckland, one against the Springboks in a rain-obliterated Cape Town. He was just 21 then, in the thick of his university finals in physiology and human anatomy. A midfield back with a strong preference for the outside-half role, he had fallen out with the Bristol club - the West Countrymen considered him an uppity so-and-so - and was on the brink of a move to Wasps. Distractions were two a penny, yet Woodward was so impressed by his courageous performances amid the mud and bullets that he publicly trumpeted him as a model tourist.

The second chapter of the story saw Lewsey in north America, on what was effectively a second-string England tour coinciding with the 2001 British and Irish Lions' trip to Australia. By now, he was an outside back, capable of playing at both wing and full-back, and it was from the latter position that he scored four tries in three Tests - two against Canada in Toronto, another two against the United States in San Francisco.

Yet it would be another couple of years before he could count himself a fully-fledged international in his own right, rather than a fringe player called upon to fill the gaps left by elders and betters either in dire need of rest or with something better to do. An injury to Jason Robinson before the Six Nations game with Italy at Twickenham in March 2003 persuaded Woodward to turn to Lewsey once again, and this time, he stayed turned. Lewsey bagged another pair of tries against the Azzurri and has appeared in 22 of the subsequent 25 Tests, starting 21 one of them. Everything comes to he who waits.

And Lewsey knows what it is to wait. He was a real hot-shot at school - although he was born in Bromley, he was brought up in Hertfordshire and attended Watford Grammar - but was ignored by the England youth selectors. "He was on the slight side," recalled John Williams, secretary of the Hertfordshire Schools Rugby Union. "That's why he missed selection. After leaving school, he worked on his kicking, built himself up physically and won caps for England Colts and Under-21s. Above all, he was determined to succeed - very self-critical, always analysing his performances and wanting to improve." Williams knows his man. "I do regard myself as a hard worker," Lewsey agreed. "I'm not sure I work any harder than anyone else but Warren Gatland [his coach at Wasps] always asks his players to be honest with ourselves in terms of our preparation and application, and I like to think I live up to that.

"Sometimes, life on the wing can be frustrating. You depend on those around you to involve you in the game, and if things don't happen the way you want them to happen, it's difficult to give everything of yourself. But by and large, I come off the field absolutely knackered - and believe me, it's not through any lack of fitness.

"I treasure the feeling of being able to look my colleagues in the eye after a game, secure in the knowledge that I haven't held anything back. Even if I haven't played particularly well, I can live with myself if I've really thrown myself at the opposition. One of my greatest fears in rugby is returning to the dressing room and not being able to give people that straight look. It must be the worst feeling in the world, and the very thought of it scares me."

Lewsey does not do scared very often. In fact, he is as bold - brazenly, belligerently bold - as any member of the current England team. He has learned well from Dallaglio, his club captain, whose hatred of defeat might almost be classified as a form of insanity. If some outside backs are distant types who prefer to stay remote from the general bolshiness that holds sway in a dressing room before a big match, Lewsey plays his full part in Operation Pump-up. The more physical the impending confrontation, the more intimidating the atmosphere, the more he likes it.

"I remember Wasps beating Perpignan down there in last year's Heineken Cup like it was yesterday," he said. "And in particular, I remember three things - things that make rugby what it is. Firstly, there was this air of the exotic about the game, something completely different from the week in, week out Premiership experience. Secondly, there was Lawrence's team talk. We'd been playing together for a long time, us Wasps, and when I looked around the room at some of my great friends, the Mark Denneys and Paul Volleys, and saw them responding emotionally to Lawrence's words, I understood more about rugby than I'd ever understood before. So often as a professional, you concentrate all your thoughts on yourself. But there are times, and that was one of them, that the bond with others is infinitely more important. I don't think you win a Heineken Cup, as we ended up doing, without a feeling of belonging to something.

"And thirdly? The feeling afterwards, an incredibly strong sense that it would be our year. It was a milestone win - I knew it the moment the game was over. We all did. We realised then that we could go anywhere and win, provided we dug deep enough. There was a similar feeling about the England team when we beat Ireland in Dublin, New Zealand in Wellington and Australia in Melbourne before the World Cup. It's special."

So what happened? How did England, fresh from the ultimate glory of that November night in Sydney, let it all slip? "It was a difficult period, those months after the World Cup win," he said. "We were probably under- prepared for the Six Nations Championship, and we were very poor in New Zealand and Australia during the summer. There were reasons. We'd lost players, obviously, and those that were still around were exceptionally tired. Speaking for myself, I was absolutely bollocksed.

"But I'm not into excuses, thanks very much. The summer defeats, especially that last one against the Wallabies in Brisbane, annoyed me. Every time a player pulls on an England jersey, he is making a statement about himself and about the people he represents. That's a big thing in my book, and the statement we made that night was not what any of us wanted to hear. We were absolutely thumped, by a side we'd beaten to win the World Cup a few months earlier. It got me down. I had to work really hard on my positive thinking to get back up again." Happily, Lewsey is sky-high about his rugby now. The Six Nations v

c Championship poses a serious threat to England's fragile sense of well-being, but as far as their wing is concerned the negatives of the summer have been replaced by something entirely progressive and constructive. At 28, he can expect to play a part in the defence of the Webb Ellis cup in France in 2007, and his thoughts are already tuned into the possibilities offered by that tournament.

"We're in transition, as everyone knows," he said, "and transition periods are awkward. The Six Nations will test us to the limit, but we need to be tested if we are to move towards 2007 in the right shape, with the right people on board. Wales first up in Cardiff? Terribly tough. To my mind, the Welsh are the most improved team in world rugby right now. I think they're where Ireland were 18 months ago - exceptionally talented, moving fast in the right direction, but just one or two big wins away from breaking through the last of their psychological barriers. Our matches at the Millennium Stadium and Lansdowne Road are tremendous challenges, given where we are as a team.

"There is a school of thought that says it is better for England to lose a couple of games now and take the right action as a result, rather than lose them in two or three years time and be low on confidence going into the World Cup. There's a logic to that, obviously, although we badly want to win all of our matches in this tournament. Is it possible to achieve five victories? Of course it is. Is it likely? Let's just say it will be extremely demanding.

"The whole thing is fascinating, isn't it? For a long time now, defences have been in charge at international level. In a contest between a great attack and an immense defence, the defence has won more often than not. But there is change in the air, I think. The game is still massively physical, but there are signs of an increased creativity, driven to a large extent by the All Blacks and their wonderful back division but emulated to a degree by the Welsh, who now play a very uninhibited game. Rugby has its cycles, and I believe we're moving towards something fresh and exciting in the Test environment."

Of all the England backs likely to feature in this tournament, perhaps only Lewsey is sufficiently flexible to deal with any and all stylistic developments. He possesses the game-shaping instincts of an outside-half, the directness and physical capacity of a centre, the attacking brio of a high-class wing. In short, he is an all-purpose rugby player with added attitude. If Wales choose to play fast and loose with the red rose army, he is just the man to beat them at their own game. If the Irish opt for a tight game, spearheaded by Ronan O'Gara's tactical kicking, it is Lewsey who will back himself to deconstruct their strategy.

England are lucky to have him, especially in their current uneasy state, for he is nothing if not assertive. A couple of weeks ago, a Wasps supporter said to him: "Josh, you're 13 and a half stones and not very tall. Is it wise for you to go bouncing off these big buggers like a ball-bearing every week?"

"Probably not," he replied, "but I love it." n

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