'You felt that this was just retribution in a sporting sense'


Today he plays the game for enjoyment but Josh Lewsey has fond memories of facing Ireland, including that 2007 Croke Park clash

It is not all that easy to associate Josh Lewsey with the idea of ‘retirement’. The very name calls to mind a blur of blond hair; the protean modern play-anywhere fullback in possession of a game of wit, strength and combustible energy. He came to prominence at precisely the right time in England’s unpredictable history in international rugby, claiming a World Cup medal a decade ago, 55 caps for his country and three Lions caps in 2005. There is little doubt that at 36 could still be playing rugby at the highest level. Just two seasons ago, he answered an SOS from Shaun Edwards to act as a reserve for Wasps when his old club was hit with injury in the closing passage of their season.

“It wasn’t a comeback,” Lewsey sighs with mock weariness.

“I had played a charity game in Donnybrook and Shaun [Edwards] rang me up and asked me to sit on the bench for four games. True enough, the moves hadn’t changed anyhow. It was proper old school style where you work during the week, turn up and crack on. I told the press that I was just helping the club out for a few weeks and that it definitely wasn’t a comeback. And so they reported that I was making a comeback.”

Far from it: instead, Lewsey began the next phase of his life, working in finance and devoting his spare time to mountaineering (He had a perilous descent from Everest in 2010 after his breathing equipment failed, forcing him to abandon a summit attempt with 150 metres left to climb). His rugby life is limited to trying to rediscover the reasons that he first started playing the game – for enjoyment. So he didn’t have to be asked twice to play in England v Ireland game in Donnybrook on the eve of this year’s Six Nations fixture.

He will share a dressing room with former England lionhearts like Jason Leonard and Martin Corry while the teams will span several eras – Nick Popplewell and Trevor Brennan are among the Irish names.

Meeting up will be a rare treat: Lewsey confesses that with retirement comes an instant distance; former players do their own thing.

“I liken it to the silverback gorillas in the jungle. Everyone disappears to be by themselves once your time is done. When you have played the game professionally, right, it is all about achievement and performance and it is destination-based. You get very little time to enjoy the experience- it is all furrowed brows and very earnest. Then when you finish, you look back at this amazing time you had. So guys don’t see as much of each other as they would like to, it is a rare treat to come back and have a laugh and reminisce. I am in touch with some of the guys but work and family and kids all keep people busy.”

Lewsey has several vivid memories of playing rugby in Dublin but the famous 37-32 encounter between Wasps and Munster, a European semi-final played a Lansdowne Road that by then had earned every bit of its status as the world’s oldest rugby ground, stands alone as the best rugby game he ever played in. He also appreciated the significance of stepping out onto Croke Park for the historically slanted Six Nations match between Ireland and England.

In 2002, Lewsey reluctantly ended a military career when it became apparent that he had exceptional potential in rugby. He could have persevered with the two but the idea of accepting a comparative cosy station while his friends were posted in the Middle East didn’t sit well with him.

“If my mates were dodging bullets and I was swanning around taking the same rank and pay as them, well, I couldn’t live with myself. So I resigned my commission. I have said it publicly: I played for my country . . . I didn’t fight for my country. Do I wish I had done a couple of operational tours? “Yes, of course. But you can’t have everything.”

Famously, he sent a text to his former Army colleagues in Afghanistan from the England dressing room after the World Cup victory in South Africa. And when England ran out onto Croke Park in 2007, he was acutely aware that he “probably the only military-esque person to have been on the field” since the Bloody Sunday atrocity which was (sort of) commemorated that day.

Of all the games that Lewsey played against Ireland, that occasion stood apart.

He happily admits that in the early part of his career, Ireland weren’t particularly high on the English agenda. Irish form was erratic: France was the English obsession. But he is full of praise for the complete overhaul of the Irish rugby system, which has produced some of the most consistent club performances in Europe and an Irish team capable of Triple Crowns and that 2009 Grand Slam.

“That has changed the relationship between England and Ireland. Chuck in the history and the Six Nations – the Celts do like to talk about the subjugation and that works. So everyone wants to beat England. France used to be the main priority in the Six Nations but Ireland became one of the most consistent sides. And it didn’t surprise me when it happened. Yes, there have been some fantastic individual players and leaders for Ireland but I feel that the philosophy of how to get the best out of themselves was the big change in Irish rugby. Beforehand . . . look, I love ’em to bits – the Claw, Mick Galwey – they are legends of the game and are proper story tellers. I could sit and listen to them all night. But the game moved on and once that generation finished, it was all about professionalism and how they could push themselves and a high performance culture. Then the Irish consistency came.”

That is why the Croke Park match was so compelling: it was a strange one-off day when history and passion coursed through the professional preparation which defines these matches.

When pressed, Lewsey politely admits that it was a strange day from the England team’s perspective: it was probably the only sporting occasion in the world which included a history lesson from the hosts.

“It was almost a bit of a – you have to be careful what you say because you are stepping on political ground. But as far as the sporting sense you felt that this was just retribution in a sporting sense. One should never mix sport and politics and that stuff but sometimes people do and whatever happened that day, we just got blown away and frankly, our boys weren’t up for it as much as we should have been and Ireland were just a much better team.”

Lewsey laughs when asked if the scoreboard matters when the former England and Ireland boys meet up in Donnybrook.

“No. The only number to be aware of is how many players the Irish have on the field. In the last game, I got the ball and had a clean run in and all the subs ran on the field to drag me down. It is fun and a great day out.”

Three to Remember

Ireland 6 England 42, Six Nations Lansdowne Road 2003.

Both countries were chasing the Grand Slam and England captain Martin Johnson set the tone by having his team stand its ground when asked to move to the other side of the red carpet during the preliminaries.

“There was an edge in 2003. The Irish like to drum up history and being the underdog. And that is one thing, if you had to challenge the senior team, you would say: how often have you delivered silverware as favourites.

“It is easier to be the underdog and the Irish have always loved that tag. But with some of the players Ireland have had, you could argue that they might have performed better in tournaments.”

Munster 32 Wasps 37, Heineken Cup Lansdowne Road 2004.

“Okay, we were fortunate enough to win that day but that doesn’t matter: the occasion held everything that was great about rugby. 48,000 Munster fans all in red. You could hear a pin drop while the penalties were being taken . . . the lead changed hands five times and the crowd gave the teams a standing ovation at the end. It was like a perfect advert for the sport and what it means for the community. That was the favourite day of my rugby life. It was just special. Wasps came of age that day but to go there and to be part of such an amazing game – even the rugby hacks, cynical bunch of bastards that they are, said it was one of the greatest games they had seen. And then the values – two teams going hammer and tong and playing a wonderful style of rugby. It was end to end and clean and hard and fair.”

Ireland 43 England 13, Six Nations Croke Park 2007.

The rebuilding of Lansdowne Road saw Ireland playing their home games in Croke Park for the season. The visit of England to GAA headquarters was laced with symbolism. It would be Ireland’s first rugby win in Croke and their biggest ever victory over England.

“I have played in some emotional environments but that day was just sheer emotion and we got annihilated.

“And sometimes you can just win because you want it more. I went up to Drico and O’Connell afterwards and said you made your country proud today and you could see in their eyes what it meant. They were in tears during the anthem. It was a special time for them and I was pleased for the players because the whole of Ireland was watching them that day.”