Owen Joshua Lewsey MBE

Doctor of Laws

16 July 2009 - Orator: Bob Reeves

Madam Chancellor, Josh Lewsey

For many, the 2003 England Rugby World Cup victory was the ultimate sporting achievement. For Josh Lewsey, a member of the England team that day, it will be one of many. His journey towards Sydney began at a tender age, when he held his first rugby ball. Born in England of Welsh stock, he and his brothers were fed a diet of ‘Great Welsh Tries’ videos rather than ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’.

As was the case with Olympic Gold medallist sailor, Iain Percy, recipient of an Honorary degree earlier this week, who, incidentally, arrived as a fresher at Churchill Hall on the same day as Josh, parental support was the significant factor in shaping his sporting future. David and Mair were passionate about the game. They dreamed of having sons playing half back for Wales.

Through school and junior rugby in England, Josh was fortunate to receive much wise counsel. He was encouraged to appreciate that achievement will not come without total commitment, a characteristic for which he is now widely recognised, and to which I will return.

He saw the need for the highest level of fitness, whatever sport he played, and in his early teens, he demonstrated his commitment by buying his own training equipment, realising the importance, especially being comparatively small, to punch above his weight. Years later, in his international career, he was recognised as the best conditioned player, the model professional.

Rugby went professional in 1995, the year Josh came to Bristol on an Army bursary to study physiology, following his brother Tom. In his first year, he played for England Colts, the red rose prevailing over the Welsh dragon for his loyalty. He played for the University throughout his time here, but not always how he wanted! At that time, we had several fine backs, one of whom, Alex King, had the fly half position coveted by Josh. I don’t think I ever succeeded in convincing him that he was better suited to full back or the wing, though a few years later, when Wasps won the European Championship, four Bristol products were in the backline, with Alex at fly half and Josh at full back.

Madam Chancellor, I first became aware of his courage when he was in the University team at the Safari Sevens rugby tournament in Kenya. Prior to the competition we were in the Masai Mara when Josh went down with food poisoning, so bad that I had to have him airlifted out. Two days later, he was determined not to let the side down, and managed to play, going on a drip in an ambulance between games, before reluctantly giving in to his sickness.   

He joined the Bristol club, and successfully managed to combine University and senior club rugby. Some at the club were none too keen on the ambitious upstart never slow to speak his mind, and in recent years at least one England coach may have reacted similarly. Others have differed, not least Major General Arthur Denaro, who had a significant role to play in Josh’s life a couple of years after he graduated.

Josh sped through the ranks, and was selected for England’s 1998 senior tour of the Southern Hemisphere which departed a few days before his final exams. The England coach, Clive Woodward, was not happy to let Josh join the party late, neither was the University prepared to let him take his exams early. He had made a good impression on his tutors (one of whom is believed to have allowed tardy assignment submissions in return for match tickets) and it was arranged for Josh to take the papers in Australia, supervised by tour manager Roger Uttley. It worked out fine as Josh went on to receive his first full international caps and a good degree. After the last game of the tour against South Africa, in which Josh did play fly half, instead of the injured Jonny Wilkinson, the traditional rugby ‘court’ found him guilty of some trumped up charge, and he suffered the fine of a ‘William Hague’ haircut. The graduation day photographs of a near bald Josh Lewsey outside this very building have never been his mother’s favourites.

He was now a professional with Wasps, his club until retirement from rugby just a few weeks ago. After a couple of years, the thorny issue of his Army bursary arose. Would he repay the cost of the bursary or fulfil his original commitment to go to Sandhurst as a trainee officer? Enter Arthur Denaro, who describes their first meeting thus ‘I was a big fan from the start, from the moment this cocksure little rascal swept into my office, where most people hardly dared to venture’. This was a different response, from someone who saw something special in a young man with passion and drive, and said what he thought. He recognised in Josh a tremendous desire to test himself. A bargain was struck. Josh would go to Sandhurst and be given as much time off for rugby as he needed as long as he delivered in performance and effort. Some of the instructors did not take kindly to this, believing that no-one should be excused anything, and anyway, that the course was so demanding it could not be passed without 100% commitment. Denaro believed that both the Army and team sport teach you comradeship, and that the dual role was ‘brilliant’ as he put it ‘for Josh and the Army’. This was exemplified when Josh, only five weeks into his time at Sandhurst, was in the Wasps team to play in the Tetley Cup Final at Twickenham. He did drill for 2 hours that morning, but was given permission to spend the evening with his rugby mates. Despite winning, and being man of the match, he returned to his army colleagues immediately after the game, not being prepared to let them down. Josh completed his time at Sandhurst by doing remarkably well in his army exams, proving all the doubters wrong.

He was commissioned into the Royal Artillery. Rugby was going well and the 2003 World Cup was only a couple of years away. After two years, he resigned his commission without, to his genuine regret, ever having taken part in active operations, when Clive Woodward said he was a probable for the World Cup squad. Over that period until he was injured in the 2007 World Cup Semi Final, his last International, having scored a wonderful opportunist try which secured a place in the final, he had played more times for England than any other player. In his career, he achieved all he could have aspired to; four Premiership titles, two European Cups, 55 England caps, 3 with the 2005 British Lions and a World Cup Winners medal.

Madam Chancellor, we have here a man who has achieved a huge amount in a short time. Even when he was a full-time professional and in the England team, Josh needed to do more. He completed a part-time law degree in London and started on what will certainly be a lifelong commitment to serving the needs of others and also to testing himself further. Here is how Stephen Jones listed Josh’s interests in the Sunday Times-

‘Ambassador for Access Sport charity, NSPCC, Sparks charity, Benevolent Fund Ambassador for the Prince’s Trust, initiated the Josh Lewsey rugby academy with East London Business Alliance, surfing, cattle ranching in Arizona, rafting in Colorado, trekked through the Baltoro Glacier to the base camp of K2 (the most forbidding mountain in the world), supporter of foxhunting with hounds, member of the British Deer Society, Countryside Alliance, Rare Breeds Survival Trust, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, qualification in deer management, coaches youth teams and Richmond Ladies.’ In his benefit year, Josh donated a significant amount to the Princes Trust and the Army Benevolent Fund.

Next year, before taking on a leadership management role in the city, he will set out to climb Mount Everest with an old army pal. Not surprisingly, he has selected the more difficult route to attempt to reach the summit. His England team-mate, Mike Tindall, referring to Josh’s decision to retire from rugby, recently suggested that ‘England’s loss is Everest’s gain!’ 

Driven as he is, Josh remains loyal to his friends and committed to the many interests and commitments he has taken on, not least the Rugby Academy he has set up in East London, where he can frequently be found working with inner city children. Even during weekends with his wife Vanessa at their cottage in Cornwall he can be found surfing with the locals, helping out at the nearby rugby club and joining in the life of the community.

David Johnson, a friend from University, suggests that Josh has to achieve something every day or it is a day wasted. Vanessa, whom he met three years ago on a blind date, admires the apparent ambiguity between his remarkable discipline and his spontaneity. She is not alone in seeing in him a courageous person, physically and mentally strong, always willing to stand up for what he believes.

At the end of his recent autobiography, Josh quotes Richard Branson- ‘The brave may not live for ever, but the cautious don’t live at all’.

Madam Chancellor, this University prides itself on the quality of its students and the environment it provides to encourage them to go out into the world and maximise their talents. With us today we have a man of whom the University can be proud. I present to you Owen Joshua Lewsey as being eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.    

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