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Lewsey comes home to his roots to serve as head of Welsh rugby; Josh Lewsey won a World Cup winner's medal in the white of England. But GARETH GRIFFITHS discovers how a return to his Neath Valley roots persuaded him to tackle one of the biggest jobs in Welsh rugby.

Byline: GARETH GRIFFITHS

THERE was a knowing smile yesterday from Josh Lewsey as Roger Lewis announced the new head of Welsh rugby was 'coming home'.

WRU chief executive Lewis was beaming with pride at the Millennium Stadium after unveiling the former England World Cup winner as the new figurehead of Welsh rugby.

On the face of it, the former army officer could not be more English having won 55 caps and memorably lifted the World Cup in 2003 in Australia when part of Sir Clive Woodward's team.

But there have always been those Welsh roots which Lewsey was always asked about when he faced the land of his mother.

His first name is actually Owen, his mother Mair was raised in Cwmllynfell in the Neath Valley and is a Welsh speaker, and his dad David is also half-Welsh.

Lewsey's parents met at Aberystwyth University but Josh represented the Red Rose, while his younger brother Ed played for Wales Under-21s.

So when Lewis proclaimed Lewsey was 'coming home' these were the Cymru credentials he was referring to.

But when Lewsey was asked whether that was his feelings, he replied: "I'm not going to use words like that, it's just a media story.

"Last weekend, I deliberately went up to see my uncle in Cwmllynfell and the family in Llandeilo to soak it all up.

"I spent a lot of my youth here, that's no secret, "I'm proud of my heritage and no matter what shirt I pulled on in the past, I will try to do my best professional job."

Some will see it differently. England fans will no doubt view it as a former stalwart joining a rival union to help plot the downfall of his home nation.

Six Nations, of course, but then there is the far from inconsequential matter of the 2015 World Cup in England - with Wales in the same group as the Red Rose.

"This is for you press guys again," smiled Lewsey, when presented with this analogy.

"Professional sport is not a civil war. My predecessor (Joe Lydon) was an Englishman and a lot of the Welsh players are playing in England and France.

"It's a professional game, you have a Kiwi in Warren Gatland as a national coach, Shaun Edwards is English. "It's about taking a professional view to doing the best job possible and I was very honoured when Roger phoned me."

This approach from Lewis was something Lewsey admitted took him by surprise. "The phone call did come out of the blue," he said.

"I got a phone call from Roger on a Sunday afternoon and quickly realised he's got a pretty good work ethic, but it was a really exciting opportunity.

"There's been a few trips to Wales for various interviews, but we're here now and I'm looking forward to getting to grips with it.

"I have learned that if you look at the heart of sport then sport's higher purpose is giving people a sense of belonging and uniting people.

"Where can you do that more than rugby in Wales? "Having a personal affinity with the place, I feel very honoured to be involved." Lewsey is a fascinating character with a diverse background outside of rugby.

He graduated from Bristol University with a BSc (honours) in physiology and later achieved a second degree from the College of Law in London.

In 2001 he was commissioned from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and ultimately qualified as a troop commander in the Royal Artillery.

Lewsey climbed in the Himalayas and, in 2010, got within 500 feet of scaling Mount Everest before breathing apparatus failure intervened. After retiring from playing in 2009, he worked as a management consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and led an operational and systems review while on the trading floor at Citibank.

Lewsey also has rugby administrative experience through his stint as acting chief executive with Cornish Pirates, a role from which he will step down from at the end of next month.

"I stepped out of sport deliberately to learn a new set of skills and get new experiences from different industries," he said.

"I'd like to think I've learnt from people in the world of business.

"I deliberately did that to use those skills for a cause and purpose I feel passionately about.

"I spent time in the City and drove the initial changes at the Pirates, and what we achieved there in a short space of time is something I'm proud of.

"But the overall aim was always to return to something I was truly passionate about."

Lewsey will also be challenged in the murky waters of Welsh rugby having been given a wide-ranging brief.

He will take operational and strategic management of the whole game in Wales, from community to elite level outside Gatland's senior international squad.

"There's a huge amount of initiatives going on here and it's exciting," he said.

"But there's also big strategic decisions to be made going on over the next few years for the long-term well being in the game.

"I spoke to a few friends down here who are not involved in the WRU and the term that kept coming up was guardianship in terms of preserving that long-term platform."

Lewsey will be charged with trying to solve the domestic conundrum with the four regional sides struggling to compete financially with English and French rivals to keep the top players in Wales.

"There's always challenges, whether it's economic downturns or other factors," said Lewsey, who will sit on the Professional Regional Game Board.

"People need players who they can touch and the challenge is how to keep that talent in the country and how do you maintain that? "If all your experience of watching rugby is at a game with 75,000 people in the stadium, you don't necessarily have the tangible traction to the players.

"That personal aspect makes our game unique."

The regions are also striving to overcome lack of success in Europe and improve their Rabo-Direct Pro 12 displays, although Lewsey admitted he needed time to come up to speed with regional rugby issues "We have to get it right with the regions," he said.

"A lot has been made of the regional game but I think there's been some very positive meetings taking place recently. "I think the PRGB was set up to try and rectify some of those challenges but, by all accounts, those initiatives are having a massive tangible effect.

"That doesn't mean it's going to be fixed overnight, but they are being addressed.

"I've got a lot of reading material to get through first.

"I've spent a lot of time listening to people's thoughts, what the challenges are and trying to understand as best as possible.

"Inevitably, when you've got challenges like that there are no simple fixes. It's a matter of solving them over time.

"Over the next month or two I want to spend some time getting to understand the situation in more detail.

"You need as high a level a domestic game as possible. "How you incorporate that, to be honest, I don't know at the moment.

"I need to understand all the aspects of it. It's (regional success) for the benefit not just the national game, but the local game as well."

Lewsey insisted the community game must not be ignored as he looks to galvanise the sport at the grass roots level.

"There are a lot of unions globally that have entirely separated the community and a elite game," he explained.

"There are reasons why that needs to occur but there's a healthy balance of how you blend the two.

"How do we maintain the success of the elite game at all levels but also foster and invigorate the community game? "It's about how you utilise that interest to inspire more people to play and come through the development pathways.

"There are clubs that have challenges to get teams out.

"That's an area I feel passionate about and hopefully I can make a difference."

JOSH LEWSEY FACTFILE Full name: Owen Joshua Lewsey Born: November 30, 1976, Bromley Age: 36 Position: Full-back/wing Major teams: Barbarians, Bristol Rugby, British and Irish Lions, London Wasps, England ON THE FIELD Won 55 caps for England between 1998 and 2007. Played in two World Cups, winning the tournament in Australia in 2003 and finishing runners-up in France four years later.

Played for England sevens at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. Won three Lions Test caps on the failed summer tour of New Zealand in 2005.

Played briefly for Bristol but made 186 appearances for Wasps between 1998 and 2011. Won two Heineken Cups and four national titles and worked with Warren Gatland.

Retired in 2009 before making a brief Wasps return in 2011.

OFF THE FIELD Graduated from Bristol University with a BSc (honours) in physiology and later achieved a second degree from the College of Law in London.

In 2001 he was commissioned from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and ultimately qualified as a troop commander in the Royal Artillery.

Climbed in the Himalayas and got within 500 feet of scaling Mount Everest in 2010 before breathing apparatus failure intervened.

As a management consultant he worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers and led an operational and systems review while on the trading floor at Citibank.

One of the founding directors of the Foundation for Leadership Through Sport which works with governing bodies, businesses, sports clubs and academics to galvanise the focus on high performance and leadership through sport.

Acting chief executive with Cornish Pirates.

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Josh Lewsey is the new head of rugby for Wales

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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 31, 2013
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