Josh Lewsey: Josh of all trades

Multi-talented Wasp has his buzz back thanks to the new England regime and a break from the game. All he needs now is a settled position in the England side
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The Independent Online

Josh Lewsey is an unusually multifaceted character by modern rugby standards: a graduate in physiology and biochemistry, a former soldier, a free spirit whose idea of getting away from it all is a very long trek in the very high Karakoram mountains of Pakistan. Yet the things he craves as a professional sportsman could hardly be more commonplace. He wants to enjoy his weekly competitive fix, and he would like the luxury of knowing he will play his next match in the same position he played his last one. Is this happening? Not exactly.

Lewsey is enjoying himself, to a degree. He feels rejuvenated by the training regime of Brian Ashton, the new head coach of England, and excited by the side Ashton has put together for this afternoon's Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham - the first of 10 international matches leading into the defence of the World Cup in France later this year. The problem concerns the other bit. The 30-year-old Wasp is far too knowing to expect selectorial security, especially with the likes of Mark Cueto and Paul Sackey on the outside looking in. He does not, however, consider selectorial consistency to be an outlandish request, and cannot understand for the life of him why so little of it comes his way.

Today, he turns out on the right wing for his country, a mere couple of months after playing at full-back against the touring South Africans and delivering a defensive performance so complete that it made JPR Williams look like a white-flag merchant. In between, he has spent a good deal of time at centre for his club. Austin Healey of recent memory, and Huw Davies before him, boasted this kind of versatility, and then tried to keep it quiet when they realised it was jeopardising their Test careers. Lewsey would rather nip it in the bud while he can.

"Yes, I'm on record as admitting that I'd like to have a regular position, but it doesn't matter what I say because it falls on deaf ears," he said after training at Bath University this week. "There are subtle differences in the requirements of every position - full-back, right wing, left wing, the two centre roles - and if you know where you're playing from one month to the next, you can set your goals and adjust your approach accordingly. I don't really have that in my rugby at the moment, which is a little annoying. To be the best you can possibly be, to really fulfil yourself, you can't afford to be plugging holes. You need a role to fix on."

Not that Lewsey is any less effective to the naked eye for being messed around. Having recaptured a place at Test level before the last World Cup - two tries against Italy on his Six Nations debut catapulted him into the affections of Clive Woodward, who thereafter played him at every opportunity - he maintained his form when others, not least his fellow back-three regulars Jason Robinson and Ben Cohen, fell into bad habits. He has missed only eight of 45 Tests stretching back to the spring of 2003, a record that puts him head and shoulders above any of his peers in terms of reliability.

As a result, he feels able to speak his mind - and does. He believes the intense public criticism of England's recent rugby to be wholly justified - "Of course it is; if you have our resources and you're so low in the rankings, it's impossible to argue otherwise" - and admits that the chances of a successful, or even an acceptably vigorous, World Cup campaign in Tricolore country depend on an immediate upturn in productivity.

"It's a straightforward thing, isn't it? We have to start winning some games," he said. "More than that, we have to put together a run of really strong 80-minute performances. At this level of rugby, confidence is the key element. If a team doesn't have deep-rooted confidence, they will get things wrong at important moments and lose important matches.

"We'll discover something about ourselves during this Six Nations. People say there are four teams in with a chance of winning it, but that's bookies' talk. Rugby isn't played on a spreadsheet, or with the aid of a computer screen full of odds. We have five games ahead of us, all of them challenging in their contrasting ways. By the end of the tournament, we'll know where we are in terms of the World Cup."

Such is the excitement around Ashton's selection, featuring as it does the likes of Jonny Wilkinson and Andy Farrell, it is almost as if last autumn - the last three years, indeed - never happened. A bad dream and all that. Lewsey buys into the good vibes up to a point, but counsels caution. Three consecutive Six Nations misfires and a trip to the southern hemisphere on the 1998 "tour from hell" have taught him the value of circumspection.

"How did I feel when the team was announced? I liked it," he said. "I looked at the names and thought 'Jesus, there are some players there.' I speak to friends who are incredibly positive about it and I share their enthusiasm. On the other hand, I'm very conscious of the risks involved in people talking us up. Let's not forget that we haven't kicked a ball yet, let alone played a whole game together.

"I think it's important to remember that we're only as good as our last game, and as that game was a defeat at the hands of the Springboks we have to say that at the moment, we're pretty poor."

True enough. But things are looking up, surely? "Well, for starters, you forget how good a player Jonny Wilkinson is, bless him," Lewsey replied. "I feel as though I haven't seen him for three years, because he's been hiding away in that place up there. What's it called again? That's right, the North-east. What he brings with him is quality decision-making, which is the focal point for any team.

"And I have to say that Andy Farrell seems a really strong-willed sportsman - someone who has been there and done it, albeit in another form of rugby; an adult who won't fall apart under pressure. He's a communicator, too. He'll be Jonny's eyes and ears, because the way the game is played these days, an outside-half simply can't be aware of everything that's going on around him. We won't be carrying Andy, that's for sure. He's too bloody heavy, for one thing."

That's better. Some real get-up-and-go. Lewsey was in no mood to get carried away, though. "I have to go back to the fact that this is a new side," he continued. "To be successful, everything we do will have to be underpinned by accuracy of execution and a sharp appreciation of tempo. That will come in stages, so don't let's get ahead of ourselves.

"Brian Ashton said something last week that was interesting: he said there would be no-bullshit rugby. I think if you remove the word 'rugby' from that comment, you'll understand what he was getting at. We have to be honest and realistic, just like Brian himself. People may want us to deliver a New Zealand-style display, but you can't flick it on just like that. We have to grow our performance."

Yet for all his suspicion of the rampant expectation sloshing around red-rose circles since Ashton revealed his hand last Monday afternoon, the 2005 Lion seemed more animated by the prospect of this meeting with the Scots than by any game since the first British Isles Test with New Zealand in Christchurch 18 months ago.

"I want the English sporting public to be proud of their rugby team again," he said. "There's a solid feel about this team, a maturity about it, that impresses me. It goes back to the enjoyment thing, doesn't it? I enjoy my rugby when we're making the best of what we have and winning games. When we're not doing those things, I get massively frustrated."

The frustrations have come thick and fast since Lewsey and his fellow World Cup first-choicers - Robinson, Wilkinson, the outside centre Mike Tindall and the prop Phil Vickery - did the deed against the Wallabies in Sydney all those months and years ago. It does not escape his notice that in Six Nations rugby, the reigning world champions have lost more games than they have won, that they have not beaten France or Ireland since lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy. These facts and figures offend him.

"We haven't been good enough, not by a very long chalk," he said. "It's time to turn this thing around. The line has been drawn by the Rugby Football Union: we have a new head coach, a new training base, the team has been refreshed. Everything that people outside the squad could have done, has been done. Now, it's down to us."

Life and times of Josh Lewsey

* Born 30 November 1976, Bromley, Kent. Grew up in Watford, attending Watford GS and playing for Amersham and Chiltern RFC.

* Joined Wasps at 18, became captain of Under-21s. Sponsored by the army at Bristol University and played for Bristol; later served as officer cadet in Burma Company.

* Won first England cap on tour to Australia in 1998.

* Made England home debut in 2003 Six Nations, scoring two tries in 40-5 win over Italy.

* In England side that won 2002 Hong Kong Sevens and played at Commonwealth Games in Manchester.

* 2003 World Cup campaign included five tries in the 111-13 win against Uruguay.

* 2003-04 season finished with World Cup, Zurich Premiership and Heineken Cup winners' medals.

* After a 2005 Six Nations campaign marred by injury, helped Wasps to a third consecutive Premiership title at Twickenham.