cover

CONTENTS

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Praise

Title Page

Dedication

Epigraph

Introduction

1. Scallywags

2. Rugby First

3. Bristol – and England

4. Wilderness

5. Hurry Up and Wait – Sandhurst

6. Getting Noticed

7. Evolution

8. The Moment

9. Trophies

10. Socialist Republic of Woodwardville

11. The World Cup

12. The Final

13. Party

14. Leadership

15. Mountains and Travel

16. Hobbies and Pastimes

17. Rugby – Then, Now and in the Future

18. What Next?

My Greatest XV and Other Legends

Vital Statistics

Index

Acknowledgements

Copyright

About the Book

One Chance reveals the life and career of one of the most successful English rugby players of all time – Josh Lewsey. His experiences as a World Cup winner and crucial member of the victorious Wasps team of 2006/07, as well as having played for the prestigious British Lions, allow him to provide an eye-witness account of the trials and triumphs of a rugby professional. From fears of injury to holding aloft the World Cup trophy, Josh’s account contains both elation and despair from his eventful career.

Tracing his early life, his time spent in the army and in postgraduate study, and his love of adventure alongside his dazzling rugby career, Josh is frank and forthcoming about challenges on and off the pitch. His direct and honest approach means he offers real insight into the rugby world and beyond, as well as revealing what it takes to be the very best.

About the Author

Owen Joshua Lewsey was born in 1976 in England, from Welsh blood. As well as being one of the world’s best rugby players and a test British Lion, he holds a Physiology degree from Bristol University, a postgraduate degree in Law and has served as a commissioned officer in the British Army. He left the military in 2002 to concentrate wholly on rugby, and was awarded an MBE one year later for his role in the triumphant 2003 World Cup. He retired from both club and international rugby in 2009.

Praise

‘Pound for pound, he may well be the best player in British rugby’ Jeffrey Guscott, The Sunday Times

‘A great book, especially because Josh has written it in his own words’ Sir Clive Woodward

‘Very much his own man, he has dispensed with a ‘ghost’, backing himself to write an autobiography that is certainly engaging.’ Rugby World

ONE CHANCE

My Life and Rugby

Josh Lewsey

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This book is dedicated to all the Richard Rivetts, the John Williams, the Dick Davies, the Ross Panters, Roy Jarolds, and David and Mair Lewseys out there – the parents, teachers and volunteers who willingly give up their own time to inspire, enthuse, motivate and mentor young people. You are the grassroots of every sport and the fabric of communities, but what’s more, you have the power to change lives and fulfil dreams.

Talent is not enough. You must have the right mindset. To get to the top and stay there you have to want to be the best in the world with every ounce of your mind, body and soul. You have to make great sacrifices. You must throw yourself into new experiences to learn and improve continuously in order to develop and hone your skills so that they become second nature. You must make the right decisions on and off the park; and you must not upset anyone important, even if they deserve it.

If you can do all this, then you will have the confidence to trust yourself. This will free your mind to let your talents flow and luck will help you on your way.

Richard Rivett

Introduction

Given that this is an autobiography, it may sound bizarre to state that I’ve written this book myself. This isn’t a boast, or an apology, but merely to say that I have not, as is often the case with sports biographies, used a ghostwriter. To that end I stand accountable for my thoughts, opinions and views.

Therefore, I hope those who read this will take what I say in the context of how I mean it, which is usually with fond affection. Of course, I’m not always right and, reading this years from now, I may be proved wrong in various areas, but I’ve given my opinions and version of events as I saw them, straightforwardly and honestly.

Such honesty has at times ruffled feathers, even got me into trouble, but I’d like to think that at least I have always been myself and genuine with those around me.

Writing the book has been an enormously enjoyable and in many ways cathartic experience but the biggest challenges have been:

  1. Striking the delicate balance between speaking the truth in an even and fair way, being honest in my own opinions and yet not wishing to be deliberately controversial or offensive to others.
  2. Making those funny times I reminisce about seem funny to you, the reader, who wasn’t actually there, and who doesn’t have an intimate knowledge of the characters involved.
  3. Giving an intimate description of people’s characters without breaking their confidence and, more importantly, maintaining loyalty towards them.
  4. Spelling!

Last but not least, I see myself as having been exceptionally fortunate to get paid for doing something I simply love. I have written this book as a keepsake of my life and career to date but, most importantly, hope to share some of the wonderful times that I’ve had living it. I hope you enjoy it too.

Yours,

Josh

November 2008.

Chapter 1

Scallywags

IT SEEMS TO be accepted practice in the world of sporting autobiographies to start with one’s childhood, accompanied by some rather gawky pictures at school, a team photo and the obligatory bad haircut, and to give a chronological account from there. So, in time-honoured tradition, that’s how I’ll begin.

My childhood was, on the whole, not that much different from anyone else’s. I was born in Bromley, south-east London, in 1976, the middle child of three boys. I have no affiliation to the place of my birth because we moved to the more homely and comfortable surroundings of rural Norfolk while I was still very young. Having two academic parents, both of them with Welsh roots (my mum, Mair, is Welsh, my dad, David, half-Welsh, half-English), meant that many summers were spent crossing the country and travelling down the M4 towards South Wales, spending time playing in the pools, streams and tributaries of the Twrch, and eating vast quantities of bara brith (Welsh fruitcake). Mamgu (Elunid), our grandmother, was an angel of a woman who took huge delight in filling our young bellies with lovingly prepared home-cooked food.

Dadgu (Emrys), my mother’s father, was captain and fly half of Ystalyfera and, though ill with emphysema – he had worked in the pits from the age of twelve – and, by the time we got to know him properly, Alzheimer’s, he remained a respected and well-liked man in the local community. It was this link with Wales that perhaps had the most influence on me and my brothers, Tom and Edward. Having been born in the mid-seventies during the time of The King – Barry John – and other Welsh greats like Gareth Edwards, we were more than a little conscious that rugby was the national pastime in the principality. All three Lewsey boys were to dream of playing the pivotal role of halfback in the magic red jersey of Wales.

Having come from mining stock in Cwmllynfell on the edge of the Black Mountains, my mother was keen to see life outside her close-knit community and left home to study history at Aberystwyth University. Dad was reading physics there and the ‘romantic’ tale of how they met has gone down in family lore. Playing in the university rugby team in the days when the opposition used to stay overnight, Dad challenged his opposite number to a drinking contest. Having lost, he proceeded to throw up into the lap of the nearest woman, an attractive brunette. Understandably somewhat put out, she didn’t speak to him for two years. Some years later, the pair now happily married, Thomas Rhys – Tom – was born, the first of three boys who would carry on in the same genteel manner!

Two years after Tom was born, I came along, and then in 1979 Edward was born. We were still in London at this point, and my poor mother still recalls being dragged around countless rugby grounds as Dad turned out for Old Colfeians! By the late seventies the family moved to the historic city of Norwich in East Anglia, and that’s where my first memories begin. It was a happy time. I enjoyed school and fairly quickly we three boys established ourselves in the local ‘close’.

Mum was teaching history at secondary school, and Dad was working as sales director at IBM in Norwich. I remember Dad bringing home a computer one day. The fact that it was about the size of a house didn’t diminish our excitement, but then, typical males through and through, we quickly grew bored when we couldn’t work out how to use it, having already thrown away the instructions. I remember, too, Tom getting his first bicycle without stabilisers. The first bike is a big moment in any child’s life but that was almost overshadowed by Edward’s and my amusement as we tried to jab a stick between the spokes as Tom rode it!

That bike taught us the importance of not being too image-conscious or obsessed with brands. In hindsight, we tried to generate our own values about what really mattered in life. In those days toys weren’t quite what they are nowadays and, thanks to some pretty robust treatment, the bike didn’t stay in one piece for long. Not to worry, though. Grandpa – Dad’s father, who lived in Royston – was a genius at making things; he was the DIY equivalent of Ray Mears. Hardly a Christmas went by when we didn’t get a home-made castle, or a go-cart. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not exactly obsessed about such things but in today’s health-and-safety-conscious world the sharpened metal watchtowers and turrets or the deregulated attached air rifle would not have got production approval on a commercial level, though even back then their suitability for clumsy small boys might have been stretching it!

Despite Grandpa clearly disliking us, preferring instead to shut himself in the garage and smoke rather than having us hanging around, irritating him, I remember thinking he was pretty cool. He once gave me neat gin instead of water when I ran in thirsty from playing football, and roared with laughter as I cried and my throat burned. Grandpa was only too happy when he was scouring skips and rubbish tips for any odds and sods that could be made useful, and that meant that this former company quartermaster sergeant thought nothing of welding a BMX front to a Raleigh racer back to ‘make do’. Other kids didn’t see it quite like that; they were more preoccupied with the make of the bike than who actually won the races, not missing the opportunity to tease Tom when his bike came apart at the welded joints when he was trying some stunts. Rather embarrassed, Tom responded in the eloquent and intellectual manner that being part of a competitive trio had taught him: he left two older kids bleeding in the street … bless him!

This ‘make do and mend’ attitude continued throughout my school career. At Watford Grammar School, as senior prefect, I like to think I would have set a good example with the support of my peers, and commanded some respect. Yet, despite being the only family with a tennis court and a seven-bedroom house, we all individually at some stage developed the nickname of ‘gypo’. This nickname could have stemmed from our reluctance to adopt airs and graces and our grounded mentality, but it probably came about because we boys drove a clapped-out Metro without a dashboard that was so crap even the kids on benefit took the piss. It was this ability not to take ourselves too seriously, to establish our own values of what mattered in life and respect achievement that, I believe, made us all the independent, self-reliant characters we are today.

People often ask me how old I was when I started playing rugby. The answer is four. Usually you’re not allowed to start playing until the age of six, but once they’d dropped us off at the club in the morning, and we ran around for free and came home knackered and ready for bed, I think Mum and Dad quickly came to see rugby as a cheap form of babysitting! Of course we all loved it; it was a cracking way for energetic youngsters to learn some very good social, moral and physical skills. I was a very small but pretty nippy mop of blond hair and I realised fairly early on that if you wanted to stop someone bigger than yourself you had to even up the odds. Short of kicking them in the goolies, the next best thing was to go for their lowest point – their ankles. At the time I remember being taught that saving a try was as important as, if not better than, scoring one, a lesson that some of the headline-seeking youngsters now playing the professional game would do well to learn.

The club I played for was North Walsham, set in a rural part of Norfolk, so there were a lot of farmers’ boys in the team – easily identified by the elongated arms they acquired through a life of loading bales of hay and shifting pigs. Most notable was a boy called Joe Beardshaw. I have a picture at home of me and Joe in our first week of club rugby and I’m delighted to say that we eventually played again together for Wasps and are still good friends to this day. And – sorry, Joe – he is still called Monkey because his arms are so long!

When I was six we left Norfolk for Hertfordshire. We’d bought a big house in a pretty hamlet between the villages of Sarratt and Chipperfield. The school I went to was Sarratt JMI, about a mile’s walk from home or a few minutes by car for Mum on her way to work. Despite us moving into an area where to me everyone seemed to sniff a lot and had funny accents – compared to my East Anglian twang they sounded like characters from a Dickens novel – we all settled in fairly quickly. Chris Alexander was the headmaster of Sarratt JMI; he was a firm but kind man with a passion for sport. I remember playing enormous amounts of all sports in those days, running around every playtime and generally loving being outside. I have kept my love of open spaces to this day, still enjoying outdoor activities. One thing that also became clear – even though I probably didn’t realise it at the time – was that Grandpa was basically a countryman, bright, and a phenomenal font of knowledge about wildlife, especially birds. Often perceived as awkward, he was, on reflection, more shy than difficult; and having once been a gamekeeper, he understood the delicate balance between life and death and was always more comfortable in the simple presence of God’s creatures than in the incessant noise of modern humanity. Similarities between us haven’t gone unremarked!

As I have mentioned, we spent countless hours outside playing all types of sport and when at home used up every spare moment hitting each other with tennis rackets or ruining Mum’s beautifully tended garden playing games. Being open-minded and ambitious for us, my parents wanted us to diversify our interests and tried hard to get us interested in more subtle and refined pastimes. Hence the obligatory piano and violin lessons; we also took drama at school and I distinctly remember being taken to see Swan Lake at the local theatre. But without being snobby, Swan Lake at Watersmeet, Rickmansworth, is somewhat different to the Royal Opera House, and so it didn’t quite have the desired impact. They obviously failed miserably in their efforts to get us interested in other things at the time: beating each other up was still what we did best. They did, though, manage to instil a certain balance in our characters; although none of us is particularly gifted in other areas, we all now respect and appreciate the fact that there’s more to life than rugby. Mum achieved this – whether by cunning, wit or just sheer desperation is open to debate – and certainly succeeded in stopping us talking about nothing but rugby. Sunday was rugby day up at our junior club, Amersham & Chiltern. We all played for our respective age groups, Tom for the Under 9s, me for the Under 7s and Edward with the little ones, and after Rugby Special and Ski Sunday we’d sit down for the Sunday meal. Bless Mum. I’m sure she yearned for some female company and was desperate to listen to more than the usual recitation of who scored what and who won. Eventually she declared that she’d had enough: ‘Right then, I’m fed up with bloody rugby. It’s all you talk about. From now on if anyone mentions it during Sunday meals, you won’t get pudding.’ Now bearing in mind that there was jam roly-poly or spotted dick and custard at stake, Sunday meals didn’t involve much talking after that.

It is my biggest regret that I gave up on music, as I’m now enormously envious of anyone who can play a musical instrument. My good friend Jon ‘Fingers’ Lacey is always a hit at all sorts of gatherings and his presence alone at the keyboard is enough to guarantee a good night. In fact, my brother Edward has now taught himself to play again in his TV-less house in Exeter; specialising in the music of Welsh folk singers Dafydd Iwan and Max Boyce, he also pulls off a rather rousing version of ‘You Are My Sunshine’ for Grandma’s old people’s home.

Tom was exceptionally bright academically and won a scholarship to a local private school, Haberdashers’ Aske’s, Elstree. However, having spent his childhood playing poker – his father, amongst his other talents, had been a professional gambler for a while – Dad wasn’t one to miss a trick. At the time, Sarratt JMI was a feeder for the local comprehensive, with no one going on to the highly rated Watford Boys Grammar School. It was then and still is one of the best grammar schools in the country but, being outside its catchment area, we’d have been unlikely to get in. The school had an automatic entrance policy for siblings and so, armed with the offer of an academic scholarship from the local top-rated private school, Dad made a point of choosing Watford for Tom instead. It was only later that he said, ‘Oh, didn’t I mention there are two more?’

By then differences began to emerge between Tom, Edward and me. It’s not surprising that, like most siblings, we were reasonably competitive, not just in sports but also in the puzzles and board games we played regularly on a Sunday night. Living in Thatcher’s Britain as we were at the time, the good old capitalist values of greed and competition were encouraged, and Monopoly was the board game that encapsulated the spirit of the moment. Edward, being five years old, was sent to bed after being made bankrupt by landing on Dad’s Mayfair. After an hour of tears he still refused to go to sleep and, exhausted, with school the next day, Mum pleaded his case to come back and join the game. But Dad was adamant: ‘Mair, he’s got to learn!’

We were also very fortunate to travel so much. Mum and Dad believed in showing us different cultures and though the holiday homes of south-west England or the sunshine of the Costa del Crime may have been infinitely more convenient, the lure of ‘adventure’ and the challenge and fun of trying to speak the language, even though we couldn’t, were considerably more appealing. We were financially quite comfortable and yet, despite being relatively spoiled with such holiday destinations, if there was an opportunity to create stress or to bend the rules then we’d take it. Hitch-hiking around Greece springs to mind, staying in bug-infested youth hostels, having to pretend we were eight to get on rides cheaper – even when I was twelve – and bypassing border guards in Calais at 60mph to catch the ferry. Any whingeing got a swift response: ‘You’re not here to enjoy yourselves, you’re here to make the most of it.’

We were also lucky enough to ski a fair bit, often sharing family holidays with our friends the Toulsons. Mr Toulson, Alan, was a senior partner in a law firm, and a captain of industry; Sarah, his wife, was the typical English rose. Their son, Luke, was a great mate of mine and along with Bonny, Katie and Sam they made up the most lovely, affectionate family you could think of. We complemented them. Anyone who has skied the slopes of the French Alps will know how ridiculously expensive food and drink can be in the mountain cafés. Usually staying half board, and having fairly healthy metabolisms, it didn’t take long for us to work out who wasn’t eating their lunch properly. While Luke, Bonny and co. were tucking into their lunchtime croque-monsieurs and chocolat chauds, we were encouraged to ‘fill our boots’ at breakfast and last through the day. Starving by lunchtime, we’d send Edward, ‘the nice one’, to chat up older, lonely French girls, more concerned about their weight than talking to boys aged six, eight and ten. Tom would work the left flank and I’d pick off their mates.

I also loved going down to Wales. Dad’s family, rehoused there during the war, was predominantly from north Hertfordshire and, as an only child, he didn’t have much close family. Mum, on the other hand, from your typical Welsh mining village, had lots of aunties, uncles and cousins. They were all lovely to us and I for one was happiest there, with a special fondness for her mother, Mamgu. Even when I was naughty as a little boy or a difficult and unruly teenager, she was always kind and scrupulously fair. As I’ve said, she fed us huge amounts of food, and I remember her once saying to my best friend who, bloated after an enormous meal she’d prepared, had declined any more: ‘Wash it down with some trifle.’

Alun, my uncle, was also a very sweet man whose generosity knew no bounds. In such a small community, after retirement he regularly won competitions for his vegetable garden and thought nothing of giving all the produce to neighbours and relatives, never accepting a penny. I remember him taking me to Stradey Park, the home of Llanelli, and watching my cousin Ian Davies play for arch-rivals Swansea. On the way to the match he taught us the words of ‘Sospan Vach’, the famous club anthem. I think it was my first proper game of rugby and frankly I loved it. Alun had spent every day of his working life, as his father had, in the mines and most notably on the ‘breaker’. Think of the machinery road builders use to dig up the roads and you’ll know what I mean. Having done a couple of days’ ball-breaking work either on building sites or on my own house using one of these, all I can say is that to do forty-two years on the breaker without a murmur or whinge – he’s a tougher man than I am.

* * *

The eighties was a difficult time for South Wales. The repercussions of the pit closures in the mid-eighties were still being felt in men’s social clubs, the emergence of the supermarkets was squeezing the farming industry and that source of national happiness and pride – the Welsh rugby team – wasn’t successful either, losing many of its best players to the lure of professional rugby league. It is therefore with great delight that I’ve watched their recent success – notably the 2008 Grand Slam – under the management of Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards. I know how much it means to them.

The clash of culture and wealth between Cwmllynfell and the comparatively opulent if disengaged surroundings of the leafy Home Counties was, on reflection, startling. Such polar opposites did, though, I’d like to think anyway, give us a rounded view of people. I can understand why some people from the Celtic countries dislike the English, labelling them (incorrectly most of the time) as pompous snobs or Hooray Henrys. Conversely, when I hear the odd idiot arrogantly lambasting them in turn, saying that the only problem with Monmouthshire is that it’s full of Welsh, it makes my blood boil.

Chapter 2

Rugby First

MY HAPPIEST MEMORIES of childhood are of days spent up at Amersham & Chiltern RFC from the early eighties, when I was six or seven, to about 1994. I’d found something I was good at, and our coaches Dick Davies and Richard Rivett encouraged a running style of play that got us all participating. The sports clubs around the country, their success and level of participation depend entirely upon the goodwill, enthusiasm, hard work and dedication of the many volunteers and parents who give up their spare time, and we were lucky in Amersham & Chiltern to have that in spades. Both Dick and Richard were fathers of lads in the team: Joe Davies, our lighthouse of a second row, being a farmer’s boy supplying pork to Waitrose, went on to qualify as a vet, and James Rivett, a confrontational prop, is now a successful City banker.

For my entire youth I played fly half – the decision-maker, the caller of moves – and with a fairly nifty sidestep and turn of speed managed to run in a few tries too. I coach children on many occasions nowadays and try to get up to Amersham & Chiltern, where the rugby bug first bit me, as often as possible. Even at such an early age, I still think it’s possible to spot the ones with real, natural ability. As far as scouting goes, I’m led to believe that most professional sports look first for athleticism, believing that you can teach skills for a particular sport later. I don’t necessarily agree with this philosophy; with the right training programme anyone can become fit and strong but the inherent knowledge of what to do at a particular time, an understanding of the game and how to use those around you to manipulate space are much more important than how much you bench. Of course, in order to achieve at any level, technique doesn’t work without the requisite horsepower, but if someone is both a natural footballer and a good athlete he just needs the right mental faculties to reach international level. But at a pre-pubescent age fitness and size are less of an issue, and in my dubbined-up pair of steel-toed, high-cuts I’m told I looked a worthy opponent. What Richard Rivett saw in me was that I was clearly a very good player who could win games single-handed. In fact, though I could often run the length of the pitch by myself, I was always encouraged to involve others, being given a Mars bar or similar treat when I set up a try for someone else – conditioned like Pavlov’s dog.

We had great sides in all age groups, and being based in an affluent area of south Buckinghamshire, where aspiring schools gave the boys rugby four times a week, we competed and won most of the time. Nick Bottomley was scrum half, but once he rightly saw sense and found a more interesting pastime – girls – he was replaced by a typically tenacious Scot, Martin Smith. Michael Parsons played centre and, being fiery, powerful and quick, tore up most midfields. My good mate from school Braden Dunsmore, ‘the tackler’, played outside, with the elusive pace of Charlie Hutchins on the wing. Charlie’s family was charismatic, especially his father, John, who was always very kind to me. With his shooting stick he’d follow the team faithfully around various tournaments and competitions. It always amused us that, even as a boy, Charlie was made to wear a tweed jacket and tie after games, especially as the rest of us were usually in too much of a hurry to pinch the penny sweets to even bother washing.

More than anything else it was the feeling that I was special, that I was valued at something, which made me most content. At the time Dad was coach of Edward’s team, and as he was probably their best player Dad wasn’t going to leave home without him. Edward quickly realised this and, being the baby of the family and happy-go-lucky by nature, it meant hours waiting for him to get ready. My spies in Exeter, where he now plays and teaches, tell me nothing’s changed! Tom and I, on the other hand, were dropped all around the country in lay-bys and service stations and given grid references for poor old Richard and Roy Jarold, Tom’s coach, to drive out of their way to pick us up.

Mum, after a week’s hard graft at the local school teaching history to pimply adolescents, would, like all the mothers, roll up her sleeves and help in the kitchen preparing bacon butties and hot dogs. It is volunteers like Mum who deserve all the accolades: they provide the cornerstone not just of rugby but of all grass-roots sport in this country and, what’s more, create a healthy community in doing so.

I loved Sundays so much during the rugby season and frankly got bored stiff in the off season. Mum and Dad tried in vain on numerous occasions to punish me if I was naughty. ‘Grounded’ wasn’t an issue – we lived seven miles from my nearest mates. ‘Stop pocket money’ didn’t work either as I hadn’t discovered girls yet and thus had nothing to spend it on except sweets, in which case I’d just pinch the second layer of chocolates from the box Mum kept for the next dinner party (we all became fairly adept at resealing any opened food container!). But when on one occasion I wasn’t allowed to go to rugby, Dad driving off leaving me practically in tears, I cycled up there anyway. Bearing in mind it’s a twelve-mile hike over the Chilterns I wasn’t exactly on top form that day.

At primary school we had played all sports, but I particularly excelled at football. At the age of eleven, when I was just about to start at Watford Boys Grammar School, I had to make the choice between football and rugby. To be truthful I was probably better at football than rugby, having captained Watford District when I was ten, and was asked if I would consider an apprenticeship with a few of the big First Division clubs – this was before the Premier League. Although the thought of playing computer games and doing only remedial reading and writing sounded fun, football wages hadn’t reached the stratospheric levels of today and thus the more traditional school route was chosen. Going to a grammar school that prided itself on rubbing shoulders with the great and the good, we played rugby, hockey and cricket but, as anyone who knows me will tell you now, I haven’t played the last two since those days.

I found school enormously exciting. Watford Boys Grammar School punches above its weight and, along with its sister school, regularly excels in those questionable and debatable academic league tables. It’s true what they say about everyone remembering a good teacher and there were certainly plenty to pick from, and not just in terms of academic lessons: the school had a very good reputation for its broad extracurricular activities. The year I joined, 1988, David Pyatt won the Young Musician of the Year award, and during my time we twice won the Observer Mace competition for debating. There was a full arts and drama itinerary of events and, of course, sport in all forms was actively encouraged.

These days I have an ongoing, good-humoured debate with Fraser Waters, my old Bristol University and Wasps colleague, about where we’d send our children. He was educated at Harrow – a school whose prestige, heritage, political influence and number of British prime ministers it has produced would be hard to match. But as essentially a comprehensive school at the time, based in a culturally diverse area of Watford, and therefore obliged to take a quota of local entrants, WBGS represented better, I feel, the broad spectrum of society. And so, not being a ‘narrow-minded bubble-boy bigot’, and having grown up with the sons of parents from various professions and backgrounds, I reckon it kept me and my brothers grounded and made us more determined than ever.

Academically I was competent enough but I was never one to breeze through without effort. Sciences and maths resonated with me far more than languages, and to this day my spelling is so awful that even as I type this with the spell-check turned on, the computer struggles to recognise certain words. At the time I thought French would be a useful language to learn, what with the various holidays we had. After a few minor rearrangements I found myself in the same set as those whose first language wasn’t even English! Geography was fun; in its most basic form it seemed that a pass mark would be achieved by colouring in the right bits blue, green or brown. To this day I still regret that you couldn’t do both history and geography for GCSE; they would definitely have given me more chance of doing well than boring old English Lit. With a history graduate for a mother and a younger brother who would later pursue it into teaching, I enjoyed the political elements of it, having been lectured on pretty much every car journey we ever took. Trips to Bath covered the quarrying of stone, Wales and further north the Industrial Revolution, France the two world wars, NATO and communism, Stonehenge the ancient Britons – which led on to the Romans, the Norman/Saxon squabbles, coming back of course to the persecution of the Celtic races at the hands of the English, and so on.

It was sport, however, that defined me. Sport was something I was really good at and the source of any confidence and self-identity I had. But I had begun to drift. Being a slow developer physically I could no longer rely purely on natural ability. I’d never lost a running race until I was thirteen but seemingly overnight the boys I went to school with had suddenly grown into men and I hadn’t even started. The opportunity to excel at anything was suddenly being taken away from me. I began to feel very frustrated with rugby and, though still more than capable, perhaps began to lose my way a little. At that time the key phrase in the English game was ‘percentage rugby’. The crowd seemed to cheer most when the ball bounced into touch. Fly halves were picked for their kicking ability and if the ball ever went beyond the inside centre something had gone wrong. In short, the game bored me, and I wasn’t suited to this new style. I’d grown up wanting to be Jonathan Davies, not Naas Botha or Rob Andrew. I was excited by the likes of Jeremy Guscott, Ieuan Evans and Serge Blanco, not some war of attrition in the mud. Of course, in the modern era winning is what counts – and rightly so – but the best teams have always been able to mix and match accordingly, getting the right balance at the right time, blending sheer pragmatism with aesthetic pleasure.

I remember watching Andy Harriman and Everton Davies scoring tries for fun at the Middlesex Sevens every year and being thrilled. (Despite Sevens being overlooked in the professional age it is still one of my proudest achievements that in 2006, with eleven, I broke the record for the number of tries scored in that tournament.) Dad took me down to Cardiff Arms Park for my first international, when Wales beat Scotland in their Triple Crown year of 1989. Jonathan Davies scored ‘a mesmeric try’ – and Ieuan Evans sidestepped their whole team to score the most amazing try – ‘Merlin the magician couldn’t have done it any better’. I was overcome with the emotion of it all: this was what I wanted. As you can see I even memorised Bill McLaren’s commentary of those tries, but English rugby seemed to have no place for an idealistic pre-pubescent teenager who wouldn’t kick.

Unsurprisingly, at what is a difficult period in most people’s lives, my disillusionment spilled over into other areas. Relationships in an already competitive, male-dominated household became fraught and I always felt socially awkward. I was lacking direction, got in fights all the time, and found myself detached, misunderstood and unhappy.

Cue the intervention of a brilliant and kind man, Richard Rivett. Richard, you’ll remember, was our coach at Amersham & Chiltern and he perhaps understood me better than I did myself. He pulled me aside and gave me some advice that, arguably, changed my life. Essentially, he told me straight that my talent and ability were rare, but without matching them with equal measures of desire and determination it would all be wasted (see page v of this book). Wasting opportunities and potential was what average people did.

Whether or not I would eventually have sussed that out by myself I will never know, but I look back to that point in my life and, without wishing to embarrass him, see it as a milestone. Everyone needs a Richard Rivett, and I consider myself enormously lucky to have been given that advice at that time. Without getting too sentimental about it, I do believe that many of the issues that today’s youngsters face could be overcome if they had a similar mentor or could just find a direction into which to channel their energies.

After our chat, not without a little reflection on my part, I quickly went to work. Initially my focus was purely on sport. I had a huge interest in physiological sciences and started working hard on my fitness. At the time I desperately tried to get hold of some decent training routines and learn more about the science of training. What type of training would make you quicker? What did I need to do to get stronger and better aerobically? At the time there wasn’t even a gym at the school and, as such, in an age of characters such as Sly Stallone’s Rocky Balboa and his nemesis Ivan Drago, and one of my all-time sporting heroes, the boxer Nigel Benn, I saved my pocket money and bought a cheap punching bag from Argos. As he went to school in north London, Nigel Benn was considered a local lad. He was nicknamed ‘The Dark Destroyer’, having won all the boxing weight belts during his army career with the First Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, between 1982 and 1984. To me he epitomised everything that a true warrior was about. Without wishing to sound cheesy, there’s a moment in Rocky IV when Adrian, Rocky’s wife, turns to him and proclaims that he can’t win, that he’s up against insurmountable odds. Doubting himself, as all sportsmen do before any true challenge, Rocky responds in a subdued but perfect manner: ‘Maybe I can’t … but in order that he beats me, he’s going to have to be prepared to die himself … and I’m not sure he’s ready to do that.’ Nigel Benn fought Gerald McClellan in 1995, at the time the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Benn was knocked down twice in the first round. What ensued was one of the most courageous responses the world of sport has ever seen. Going back to his corner, as he steadied himself, and facing a fighter who was leagues ahead of him in ability, Benn knew this was his life’s defining moment. Standing silent, looking deep down into the very core of his being, facing fear head-on, he had a choice: to come out prepared to die or capitulate, take the money and be remembered as just another boxer. It was sport at its cruellest and most basic; the moment when your character is on show and being tested to the utmost, and, for all the PR, hype and media angles, there is simply no faking it. Benn’s extraordinary courage that night was surpassed only by an example of the phrase I have used above: sport at its cruellest. At the end of the fight, McClellan collapsed with, it was later discovered, a blood clot on the brain. He has never fully recovered.

All the grunting from the garage, my adherence to Rocky-style training montages and cranking out loud music was perhaps a sacrifice my parents were happy to make to get me out of the house. Soon I’d saved up enough to buy myself an elastic resistance work bench (being worried about the misconception that all weights stunt your growth) and mixed my time between bedroom beastings and garage fight club to the accompaniment of soft rock classics from the eighties – belting! But how was I to train? I look at some of the academy lads and apprentice rugby players at Wasps now and I am quite envious that they are given so much accurate information, meaning that no time or unnecessary effort is wasted and that they can reach their physical peak much earlier. Back then it was five-mile runs and circuits, things, it is now known, that couldn’t be more detrimental to developing speed and power. At the time I hugely admired Jonathan Davies who had made a successful transition to rugby league. He also played fly half, was physically quite small and yet had a deft turn of speed. I wrote to him and the ‘fitness coach’ of Widnes at the time to ask what training programmes they followed, just trying to get some advice. Unfortunately I didn’t get a reply and so just cracked on with what I thought ‘felt’ good, learning through trial and error. It wasn’t till I got to university and studied physiology that I began to get some decent advice. (Because of my own experiences, I always try to respond to every letter from aspiring youngsters, to help out in any way I can, as without such advice I know how frustrating it can be.)

The whole process I went through in that period made for an enormous amount of wasted effort in terms of its effect on my rugby, but it was a good lesson in mental discipline, if nothing else, and did throw up the odd amusing incident. For all their apparent vision, Watford Council failed to respond to any of my letters requesting some sort of discount for using local sports facilities. Based on earnings from a paper round, or a summer job working in a Watford market bakery, forking out £4 per gym or pool session or £6 to use the local track just wasn’t affordable, so I pleaded that as a representative (county) level sportsman who was trying to improve his ability I should be considered for some form of discount. Not getting a reply, not being able to afford the facilities and living about eight miles from them anyway didn’t stop me, though. It makes me laugh now to think how Edward and I used to climb the fence and use the track in the pitch dark; and how, if you timed it right, you could follow someone through the turnstiles at Watford Baths before school without paying. I didn’t feel guilty then, and I don’t feel guilty about it now.

It always amuses and amazes me when I am on tour in countries, such as the United States and especially Australia, to see just how well they cater for sport, identifying it, correctly, as a vital part of national morale and aware of its beneficial effects in other areas, too. In this country, on the other hand, we have underfunded sport for generations; we still seem to view it as more of a hobby or pleasant pastime. Swimmers, for example, need to get up at sparrow’s fart to train in the pool, since priority seems to be given instead to menopausal chit-chatters. Unsurprisingly I feel fairly strongly about this and, as well as being an ambassador for the charity Access Sport, I have also joined forces with ELBA (East London Business Alliance) to initiate some sport for primary-age kids in Tower Hamlets.

Once I’d started A levels, there didn’t seem to be enough hours in the day. As one who enormously enjoyed the interaction and focus of school, as a teenager with friends away the long summer holidays bored me. I had my share of getting drunk and getting into harmless trouble but I always felt slightly unfulfilled unless I was making the most of my time. I loved learning new things, especially about the countryside; I enjoyed fishing and shooting and would read anything I could get my hands on to further my knowledge.

Apart from biology and anything to do with the human body no other subjects really held my interest, but as I’d learned to discipline myself I worked hard, enjoying the satisfaction of doing well at something I wasn’t that good at or had to push myself in order to do. At the time, you had to keep one eye on university but the choice of career afterwards was far from clear. Rugby had not yet gone professional and was still technically an amateur sport. Top English players tended to ‘work’ for main club sponsors but I knew fairly early on that I wouldn’t be content in the traditional nine-to-five rat race. When the school arranged for me to meet a representative of the army board, fairly quickly I was off to RCB (Regular Commissions Board) to see if I had what it took to be offered a place at Sandhurst.