England’s Josh Lewsey hopes this weekend’s games can live up to the Heineken Cup reputation as the best club tournament in the world
He says the standard of rugby in the Heineken Cup can eclipse the RBS Six Nations and he hopes that the tournament’s stature can continue going forward.
He rates Wasps last semi-final, when they beat Munster in Dublin, as the greatest sporting occasion he has ever been involved in as they prepare to take on Northampton in Coventry on Sunday with a place in the Twickenham final at stake.
“I just hope that not just the semis but going forward the Heineken Cup maintains its mantle as the best club game in the world,” said Lewsey.
.. “At the latter stages you tend to find some of the standards of the rugby, because it is played on dry pitches, actually eclipses some of the standards of the international rugby you see.
“It just has that special element about it which means that every single player wants to grasp the opportunity as much as possible and the thought of being knocked out frightens us.
“For me the greatest game of rugby and the greatest game of sport I have ever been involved in was the semi-final of the Heineken Cup last time.
“It was the most magical experience, a fantastic game of rugby and when you have got some shrewd, cynical old people in the national press saying it’s the best game of rugby they have ever seen in their lives then you know it was something special.”
Wasps beat Northampton in the Guinness Premiership last Sunday, but Lewsey feels that may not count for too much when the sides face each other again in Coventry.
“In all honesty I think it helps both sides because of that familiarity. You just dust yourself off from one game and get on with the next one but it helps to settle the nerves a bit because you know what you are playing against and you know the challenges you face,” he said.
“You have still got the last game in your mind so it is almost just a case on continuation.
“The last time I can remember doing that was in the Heineken Cup when we had to play Leicester back to back and they were just monumental battles.
“Last week was a tough game for us but we do not think we did as well as we could have done. That is not meant to be arrogant but is just the standards we judge ourselves by regardless of the result. Hopefully we can perform better and if we do that we should win.”
Of course Northampton surprised many people by reaching the quarter-finals thanks to a victory against Biarritz in San Sebastian, the French club having qualified for the knock-out stages as the number one seeds thanks to a perfect record in their group which included two victories over the Saints.
“I do not think people should be too surprised they beat Biarritz because when you have got a club whish is fighting for Premiership survival then they have got to show some character and they did that against us last weekend and they did that against Biarritz,” said Lewsey.
“I think Biarritz shot themselves in the foot because they stopped playing and tried to defend a lead. History in this competition shows that fortune favours the brave and you have got to keep playing and that is what is so great about this competition – the teams which have been brave and adventurous are generally the ones which have been successful.
“There is a good buzz around the club and you sense there is something big on the horizon. We have been around in these latter stages before and the thought of getting knocked out is frightening because there are only certain amount of times of your life you get this opportunity and you want to grab them with both hands.
“This is when everyone comes back from internationals and you want the same team playing week in, week out. The loss of Tim Payne is enormous because he has probably been our most consistent player over the last two years, but we have strength in depth.
“We tend to start picking our form up as the pitches dry up and that seems to have been the case, but what concerns me is that as we get close to finals there is one game week we drop off and lose the game. Hopefully last week was the game where we dropped off.”