When a player spends the vast majority of his rugby life in Acton, a claustrophobic corner of London situated half a mile from the vast car park known as the North Circular, the splendour of the Hôtel du Department in Versailles is likely to be something of an eye-opener. "The usual setting, then: grand staircases and gold chandeliers," said Owen Joshua Lewsey, with a degree of bewilderment. Yet even here, amid the fine wines and the truffle vol-au-vents, the England wing found himself in familiar territory – that is to say, on the butt-end of a lacerating put-down from one of his fellow internationals.
A few seconds after being welcomed to the city by the Président du Conseil Gé*éral des Yvelines, no less, Lewsey was asked to reflect on the news that he would be winning his 50th cap against the United States, whom the champions meet in Lens late this afternoon. "There were times when I didn't think I'd win 10, let alone 50," he replied, with due modesty. To which a certain Richard Pool-Jones, sitting alongside him, responded: "I was in the England squad when he won his first cap. I didn't think he'd win any more at all."
The two men were friends and colleagues on the so-called "tour from hell" in 1998 – a southern hemisphere trek of epic futility during which England conceded 198 points in four Test matches. Pool-Jones, who had played for Wasps before making a swish and stylish life for himself in France, performed with a degree of courage bordering on the masochistic and was rewarded with immediate rejection. An equally brave Lewsey, who joined Wasps after the tour, was rewarded with a place in the World Cup-winning side five years later, although it took him four of those years to remind Clive Woodward, then the head coach-cum-manager, of his existence.
Did he hear from Woodward during this period of banishment? Did he phone the coach at the dead of night to ask him what the hell and why? "We discussed it on occasion," he said. "More often, the conversation would be with myself. There were times when I couldn't work out what I'd done wrong, and couldn't see a way of getting back into international rugby. The sense of frustration was very intense. I tried to convince myself that I didn't care, although deep down I cared massively.
"Eventually, I came to the realisation that if I didn't get more balance in my life, I'd end up feeling unfulfilled and bitter. When a team sportsman is moving towards his goal, which in my case was a regular place in the England side, he can easily set himself up for a fall unless he accepts that the attainment of that goal is ultimately out of his hands. When all is said and done, other people do the selecting. I took the pressure off myself by saying: 'Josh, you can do only what you can do. The rest is up to someone else.' That's the way I think these days. Basically, I decided to stop worrying and get a little happier."
Not that Lewsey was performing handstands and cartwheels at the start of last season's Six Nations Championship. Given the choice, he would have played at full-back – the position from which he had delivered a match-winning performance against the Springboks at Twickenham the previous November. Brian Ashton, promoted to head coach in the interim, thought otherwise. The way Ashton saw it, Lewsey was a wing and nothing else: not a 15, not a centre, and certainly not an outside-half, even though Woodward had cast him in that very role in 1998. As there were more wings than full-backs hanging around the red rose environment, Lewsey felt the chill hand of uncertainty on his shoulder, especially as Wasps were moving him from pillar to post on a weekly basis.
"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 remarked at the time. "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, you can't afford to be plugging holes. You need a role to fix on."
He has that role now, even if it is not the one to which he feels most drawn, and for this, he is thankful. "When I look back on the things that have happened – and I try not to look back often, because I consider reflection to be a thing best done in retirement – the ups outnumber the downs by a very long way. I have to be grateful for that, I think. I'm also pleased that, at 30, I'm fitter than at any point in my career. There are inescapable consequences of hitting 30, of course: I creak a little these days, and it takes me an age to get out of bed.
"But the training regime now is more scientifically driven and player-specific than ever before, and it improves year on year. I won't divulge any specific details, like sprint times – people can use that kind of information as ammunition against you – but I'm pretty satisfied with my conditioning."
Lewsey has always been as fit as the proverbial flea, and if he cringes at the memory of Woodward's drooling glorification of his musculature during the 1998 tour, it is not unreasonable to suggest that he was setting standards of physical preparation long before Jonny Wilkinson cornered the market in "how to be a professional" manuals. He is also strikingly honest, not least about England's recent shortcomings. Asked to assess a poor performance at Twickenham or an embarrassing capitulation in Dublin or Paris, he will invariably look his questioner straight in the eye and admit: "We were pretty crap."
As "pretty good" will not be nearly enough over the coming weeks, can he really see the champions making an honourable stand in defence of their title? "We know we have to play a lot better than we've played for some while," he admitted, "but at the same time, we also know we haven't performed to our potential. We have to believe that here, on the World Cup stage, that potential will be realised. If we don't believe it, there's no point us being here. A lot has been said about this side – about some of the personnel, about some of our displays. To my mind, we've reached the stage where the talking has to stop and the action takes over.
"These opportunities don't come round often, so let's get energetic and start playing some rugby. If we're beaten by a better side, we'll be able to handle it. We'll say: 'OK, that's sport'. If we lose because we fail to do the things we said we'd do in order to give ourselves the best chance of winning, that's not OK at all. The 'if only' phrases are the worst. I've never been comfortable with them.
"We can set the ball rolling with a good, professional performance in this game with the United States. We have our targets, and it's up to us to achieve them. I'll be disappointed if we concede a try, for instance. World Cups are invariably won by the team with the best defence, so let's get it right there for starters. We need to cut our penalty count, too. If we look at our last game, against the French in Marseilles, we can argue for ever about the yellow card shown to Simon Shaw for a tackle that may or may not have been high. The reality was that we were penalised on far too many occasions. It has to be addressed."
No one ever accused Lewsey of blowing his own trumpet and talking his way into England selection. Had he been a talker, he would not have spent the best part of five years watching other people, some of them markedly inferior performers, playing the international matches that mattered. His has been a peculiar career in many respects, punctuated by disappearances from view – some of them voluntary, others entirely involuntary. But he is getting his due reward now. As of today, he will join the 20 or so of his countrymen who have accumulated a half-century of international appearances. Of the wing brigade, only Rory Underwood and Ben Cohen have been decorated more often. Underwood retired long ago with an unreachable 85 caps to his name; Cohen's recent spurning of England and Northampton suggests he is fast falling out of love with the sport, and that he will not improve on his 57. Lewsey has that figure in his sights.
Fifty caps, eh? It must have been beyond his wildest dreams. "No. Not beyond my wildest dreams," he responded, sharply. "I've had my difficult moments, as I've admitted, but I've always been an outrageously driven character. The self-belief was always there." It took certain others a hell of a long time to share that belief, but they got there in the end.Reuse content