Josh Lewsey: Battered but unbowed, a Lion looks to the future

The Wasps full-back returned from the losing tour of New Zealand with his reputation, if not his shoulder, intact and a fierce desire to use the experience to England's advantage
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The Independent Online

Lewsey is a rarity, a 2005 Lion who returned from New Zealand with his reputation enhanced rather than battered, but his sense of collective responsibility is such that memories of his summer Down Under will forever be dominated by the walloping inflicted by the All Blacks.

"I'll look back on the tour with massive frustration," he said. "When you've worked all your life to get in a position to achieve something you've dreamt of as a child, particularly when you think of the amount of ability we had in that squad, it was hugely frustrating. You can look for reasons until you're blue in the face, but the bottom line is that we lost the Test series 3-0 and we were too talented a group of players to do that."

A major consolation for Lewsey is that the Lions were beaten by a thrilling brand of rugby. He believes, moreover, that the positives that can be drawn from the experiences of Sir Clive Woodward's team will soon be felt both at international and club level in the new season, which begins with next weekend's opening Premiership programme.

Lewsey points out that the most successful teams of recent years have played attacking rugby: New Zealand on the Lions tour; Wales in the Six Nations Championship; Toulouse in the Heineken Cup; England in the World Cup; and his own Wasps in the last Premiership campaign.

"I don't think we were taught a lesson in New Zealand, it was more a case of our experience confirming what a lot of people knew already," Lewsey said. "I remember Stuart Barnes saying before the tour that you have to be bold to go out and win things. He's right, because you're not going to win by going on the back foot.

"Look at club rugby. Leicester and Wasps, the two most successful teams, played the most attacking style last season in the Premiership. Sale attacked and scored lots of tries. Leeds were in dire straits at the bottom of the table, but they escaped relegation by playing some very positive rugby at the end of the season. I think you'll see teams go out this year and play some attacking rugby. In the Heineken Cup it's the adventurous teams who win the trophy. You can't just shut up shop. You have to be bold. And I think that's what England will have to take on board, both from last season's Six Nations and from the Lions tour."

Lewsey's summer had begun in a way of which he could hardly have dreamt. Within six minutes of his first appearance in a Lions jersey, in the opening match against Bay of Plenty, he had scored two tries. He might have added a third late in a game which immediately installed the Wasps player as a favourite for the Test full-back's jersey, but chose instead to put one on a plate for the Irish centre Gordon D'Arcy.

In between, however, was an incident that had major consequences as the No 8 Lawrence Dallaglio's tour ended with a dislocated and broken ankle.

"People say that losing Lawrence was a decisive factor," Lewsey said. "He's obviously a big difference to any team, though I don't think his injury can explain why we under-performed so badly. What's certain is that we had a long break in that game while Lawrence was taken off the field. After that we never really performed throughout the tour."

A performance described as the worst by a Lions team for 22 years saw Woodward's men lose 21-3 in the first Test. The performance improved a week later but the scoreline did not, the Lions conceding the most points in a Test in their 114-year history as they lost 48-18. A 38-19 third-Test loss completed the humiliation of the Lions, beaten by a combined margin of 67 points and by 12 tries to three.

"We just ended up chasing shadows," Lewsey said. "I remember towards the end of the second Test they had an overlap and they had about five people on the outside. I just thought: 'Bloody hell. This is a joke.' Daniel Carter had one of those days which he'll want to keep on video and show his grandchildren. He probably won't have a better game in his life. I like to think defence is one of my strong points, but he shrugged me off and did the same to virtually everyone. He was slipping tackles everywhere.

"You can't be on the receiving end of rugby like that without falling off a few tackles, because you're utterly exhausted by the end. It was such a quick game. They weren't fitter than us. They just executed things more accurately than we did and seemed to have more direction."

Woodward came under fire for his team selection, particularly for the first Test, as he picked eight Englishmen (with five more on the bench) and only four Welshmen. Stephen Jones and Jonny Wilkinson were chosen to play at Nos 10 and 12 respectively despite only brief experience playing together in those roles, while Lewsey and Jason Robinson swapped positions to play at wing and full-back.

Lewsey, however, insists that "far too much is made of team selection". He explained: "Every player on that tour had excelled in international rugby. That was why they were there. The idea that Clive might not have picked the right 15 players was irrelevant.

"If you have the right direction, and everyone buys into it and you have time to establish it, there's no reason why you couldn't have picked any one of those players on that tour and expected them to do a perfect job. There are lots of reasons why we didn't perform well enough, which I don't want to dwell on because I think the only thing that's important is to learn from the experience, which I certainly think the England people will, but team selection wasn't one of them."

Lewsey says he felt "ashamed" after the first Test. "I felt gutted that we had let a lot of people down. We represented thousands of people who had paid a lot of money to go out there and millions more watching back at home. Not living up to your potential is the most frustrating thing and we just didn't front up as a team.

"We still felt that we could beat them the following week, but there were a couple of key moments in the second Test that went against us. We were in their 22 when Alfie [Gareth Thomas] dropped the ball and they ended up going the length of the pitch and Umaga scoring their first try.

"Then we missed a couple of tackles and Byron Kelleher made a break down the blind side. We held him up on the line. I was trying to drag the ball out of his arms but he wouldn't let it go. The referee awarded a scrum to them instead of the penalty to us. They scored straight off that scrum. To concede two scores in quick succession like that just knocked the wind out of us.

"The All Blacks are very good when they've got their tails up. They were throwing the ball around and looking brilliant. We gave it everything. We threw all we could at them, but we were beaten by a better team. The sort of rugby they played takes a lot of time to develop. With the Lions you don't have many games and we didn't put the same team out regularly to develop that style."

"All the players were agreed that, in terms of the management, the travelling, the hotels, the preparation for games and all the practical details, they didn't want for anything on the tour. It was incredibly well run. At the end of it, though, you have to put your hands up and admit we weren't good enough."

Lewsey is hopeful that England will learn from the tour, though he points out that preparations for the 2007 World Cup in France will be heavily influenced by the fact that games will be played in early autumn on dry pitches rather than the "atrocious conditions" the Lions faced in New Zealand.

"No team will win the next World Cup by playing just one style of rugby," he said. "All great teams can play a wide, expansive game but they can also shut up shop when they need to close a game out. We didn't quite achieve that for England last season, despite the fact that we often outperformed teams. We outperformed France, we could have beaten Ireland if a couple of decisions had gone our way and the Australia match in the autumn could have gone either way. We have to develop the ability either to up the pace and switch to a more expansive style or to close a game out."

Lewsey thinks Andy Farrell will be "a massive success" following his move from league to union and believes England's chances will be improved if Andy Robinson, the coach, wins his battles over the availability of players. "He wants a new system in place whereby he'll have the players together in two blocks, for the autumn internationals and for the Six Nations, rather than at different times throughout the season.

"Going along to an England session on a Monday and then coming back to your club later in the week can be very disruptive. At other times you have 20 people injured on the sidelines and the coaches can't get any effective work done. This will be a massive step forward, both for the international teams and for the clubs. I'm sure the directors of rugby at the clubs would be far happier to know that there are certain blocks of time when their players will be away but at all other times they'll be available."

Some of the England players took part in the O2 Scrum in the Park public training session in Regent's Park little more than a month after the Lions tour had ended, but Lewsey's season is unlikely to start before the middle of October following an operation on a cyst in his shoulder.

Lewsey has spent some time in Cornwall indulging in his other sporting passion of surfing. Will he be back to full fitness in time to play against Australia, New Zealand and Samoa in November and maintain his record as England's only World Cup winner to appear in every subsequent Test? Lewsey, who says he never sets himself targets, simply leans across to touch the wooden table at which we are sitting at Wasps' west London training ground.

Wasps have a new director of rugby in Ian McGeechan. "Everyone says that it will be a big task following Warren Gatland, but he's not exactly having to come in and fix a broken ship, is he? Although you can always make improvements, the system seems to work here.

"Having a settled team would help, because there were times when our midfield was very disrupted last season. If we can combine Geech's subtlety and vision with the physical power that we have I think that could be a pretty awesome formula.

"The squad's been strengthened again this season and there's a great squad mentality here. Two years ago we had 16 or 17 players who you'd want for the really big games, but if there were more than one or two injuries we'd be in trouble. Now there's great competition for places, which can only be healthy. Johnny O'Connor, who narrowly missed out on the Lions, got injured last year and Tom Rees stepped up to replace him. Tom has got class stamped all over him and I'm sure he's a future international player.

"What people have to remember is that no trophies are handed out at Christmas. You need people who are going to be fresh in the last six or eight weeks of the season; that's when competitions are won and lost.

"Of course, everybody would like an all-singing, all-dancing team of 15 players who can all sidestep, pass 30 yards off each hand and always make the right decisions. But I think one of the reasons we do well here is that we tell some people: 'We don't want you doing that.' Phil Greening is a classic example.

"On his day he's the most gifted hooker in the world. We said to him: 'We don't want you playing at fly-half. We want you smashing rucks.' And at the end of last season he started playing some brilliant rugby. You have to play to your strengths. That's what we all have to learn."

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