High time for steadfast Lewsey

World Cup countdown: Former soldier brings fresh perspective to England's fast track
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The Independent Online

It is no easy task, yet Josh Lewsey pronounced Cwmllynfell with such assurance he could have been at an eisteddfod. Imagine Owain Glyndwr giving elocution lessons in English.

"Cwmllynfell,'' Lewsey sang, even getting the combined l's to sound like a slow release of steam. The village on the fringe of the Black Mountain in South Wales is where his mother, Mair, hails from. "I'm three-quarters Welsh by blood,'' Owen Joshua Lewsey said. "My mother was a history teacher so I know all about the coal and the culture. I'm proud of my heritage.'' Welsh rugby has looked as far as New Zealand for imports, but Lewsey never flickered on their radar.

Born in Bromley, Kent, he has learnt and played all his rugby in England, so perhaps it is as well in an age of questionable loyalties that he represents the land of his father, if not his mother. Lewsey leaves for Australia on Wednesday as a blue-chip member of a team ranked No 1 in the world. They are expected to return with the World Cup. It has been a fantastic seven months for the Wasp who had disappeared from the radar of the England coach, Clive Woodward.

When the big guns stayed at home in 1998, Lewsey's first cap was against the All Blacks in New Zealand, where England conceded 100 points in two Tests after losing 76-0 to Australia. It was called the Tour of Hell, but not by Lewsey.

"It's easy to condemn it, but you learn more about yourself in an environment like that," he said. "I improved as a player and a person. It strengthens your resolve to do it again and again. You develop a mental toughness. You set yourself goals, you set yourself up for a fall and are seen as a failure. That is wrong.''

Some players never recovered from the inferno. Lewsey went back to his club, where he played full-back or wing and watched Matt Perry, Iain Balshaw and Jason Robinson run for England. "My focus was to play as well as I could for Wasps. I didn't put myself under pressure and I didn't dwell on the consequences.''

He did, though, make what he describes as the hardest decision of his life - resigning his commission in the army. An officer cadet at Sandhurst, he became a second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. He was thinking of joining 7th Para, Royal Horse Artillery. Apart from a problem with his rugby insurance, Lewsey's conscience was bothering him. He knew he could not be a professional soldier and a Test player. "I didn't want to be a toy soldier. You've got to prove to your men in the regiment that you can do the job. If they were off to war and I was playing rugby, it would be a mark of disrespect.''

While his comrades prepared for conflict in Iraq, Lewsey got the promotion for which he had been waiting five years. Midway through the Six Nations, Robinson was injured and Woodward recalled the ex-officer. "Josh has a terrific attitude,'' the coach said. "He's a very focused young man who thinks he's the best full-back in the world.''

Lewsey made his first appearance at Twickenham, and his Six Nations debut, against Italy, scoring two tries, one a spectacular solo effort. "My objective was to enjoy it,'' Lewsey said. "I physically pushed myself as hard as I could. I didn't want there to be any regrets.''

Lewsey's impact was such that Woodward, whose instinct was to play Robinson at full-back, put the Sale man on the wing as England completed the Grand Slam. "I don't know where Jason prefers to play,'' Lewsey said. "As long as he's on the field I don't care. It doesn't bother me where Clive plays us. You're more of a goalkeeper at full-back. Everyone in this team slips in all over the shop because we play rugby that allows that.''

Lewsey touched down again at Twickenham, against Scotland, with Robinson, back on the right wing, scoring two tries. By accident, Woodward had found his best back three and an all-purpose No 15 who, as far as Test rugby was concerned, had been confined to barracks.

With the Grand Slam secured against Ireland in Dublin, Lewsey excelled, particularly in defence, in the summer victories over New Zealand in Wellington and Australia in Melbourne. In the former, during which he had his face stamped on by the lock Ali Williams, he produced a try-saving tackle on the wing Caleb Ralph; and in the latter, a hit on Mat Rogers that flattened the Wallaby. It was a tackle that became a talking point.

All the while Lewsey has kept in touch with his former colleagues in the Royal Artillery. "They're still my best friends," he said. "Some of them are back from the Gulf and it's been a very harrowing experience. There have been casualties. They've had a little boost seeing how well England have been doing, but really when you hear what they've been through, it puts 80 minutes of rugby in perspective. In the grand scheme of things it makes you realise how lucky you are.''

On a hot morning, after another work- out, Lewsey is standing in the magnificent grounds of Pennyhill Park, the five-star base which has been commandeered by England. He has been measured for the team suit, a light-grey number. "I'm sure mum will be proud.''

The mantra is one match at a time, beginning with Georgia in Perth on 12 October. "If you worry about the big picture, you lose sight of what's in front of you,'' Lewsey said. "We've given ourselves the best chance. We are number one in the world, but computers don't play rugby.''

Lewsey has been playing from the age of four. His older brother, Tom, is a scrum-half with London Welsh, younger brother, Edward, who has played for Wales Under-21, is a semi-professional with Exeter. "He's a very good footballer,'' said Josh. "We all used to devastate the daffodils in our garden.''

Losing the heads of the national flower of Wales would not have pleased his mother, but otherwise she is prepared to do her duty and follow the Red Rose path to Australia.