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'I have an affinity with the place and I feel honoured to be involved'

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: August 31, 2013

'Coming home'  Josh Lewsey.

'Coming home' Josh Lewsey.

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HEARING Josh Lewsey, an English World Cup winner, pronounce "Cwmllynfell" with crisp perfection is a surreal experience.

Each "ll" is articulated without fault, spoken like a native Welsh speaker — it is enough to prompt a double-take from the most learned of linguists.

Lewsey was yesterday unveiled as the Welsh Rugby Union's new head of rugby, but his flawless enunciation does not stem from a Welsh beginners' course he has hurriedly undertaken for his role.

Despite a cut-glass English accent honed at Sandhurst, Lewsey is familiar with Cwmllynfell because his mother comes from the Swansea Valley village.

The 36-year-old enjoyed a stellar playing career, triumphing in the Heineken Cup and Premiership with Wasps, touring with the British & Irish Lions and, most famously, lifting the World Cup with England in 2003.

A muscular, powerful full-back with military training and two university degrees to his name, Lewsey was the archetypal English rugby player.

After retiring he entered the world of business, working for financial giants such as PricewaterhouseCoopers and Citibank. His is a CV to make anyone envious.

Lewsey returned to rugby earlier this year as the chief executive of English Championship side the Cornish Pirates and, according to a cheeky quip from WRU boss Roger Lewis, his new role will see the Englishman "come home" to Wales.

Welsh fans seldom missed an opportunity to remind Lewsey of his Welsh roots whenever England were in Cardiff and, asked how his English colleagues and friends might view his newest job, the former full-back smiles and remains diplomatic.

"Professional sport is not a civil war," he says.

"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 pull on, I will try to do my best, professional job."

It is a good thing Lewsey can assess his new role with such cool objectivity.

In a little more than two years, he could find himself back at Twickenham — where he won the majority of his 55 England caps — as part of the Welsh backroom staff for their 2015 World Cup match against England.

An English World Cup winner trying to plot the downfall of his own country at HQ — it's a tantalising thought for Welsh supporters.

But the less forgiving of England's followers would call that rugby treason, wouldn't they?

"That's just you press guys," Lewsey grins.

"My predecessor (Joe Lydon) was an Englishman and captained them at rugby league, and a lot of the Welsh players are playing in England and France.

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

The draw for the 2015 World Cup pool stages pitted Wales and England together alongside Australia in one of the most daunting groups the competition has ever produced.

Merely reaching the knockout stages would be some achievement but, having missed out on a place in the 2011 final after an agonising semi-final defeat to France, Wales will be clamouring for their most successful World Cup yet. Lewsey is part of a select group to have lifted the William Webb Ellis trophy and, asked if Wales could do the same in 2015, he strikes a cautiously optimistic tone.

"Yes, they absolutely can. Will they? That's the challenge," he says.

"Losing in the semi-final, the interesting thing for me was you got 70,000 in the Millennium Stadium to watch on a TV screen — that just shows the verve and passion for your national game.

"It's about how you utilise that interest to inspire more people to play and come through the development pathways."

That will be one of the many challenges Lewsey faces in his new role but, with experience in the City as well as on the rugby field, he is as equipped for the task as anyone.

"I'd like to think I've learnt from people in the world of business," he says. "I deliberately did that to use those skills for a cause and purpose I feel passionately about.

"You look at the heart of sport, and 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."

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