Lewis Moody: In the Mood to conquer world with a big smile
England's captain has played in two World Cup finals but he still relishes the excitement before kick-off and is now an old hand at beating Aussies. Hugh Godwin meets Lewis Moody
Sunday 26 December 2010
In a box in a stand behind the posts at The Rec, here's Lewis Moody, captain of England. Stiff gait brought on by muscular exertion? Check. Bottom lip swollen and shiny with blood like a ripe cranberry? Check. Faint purpling of the bridge of the nose that could be an old injury or one left over from last Saturday? Check. And this was Wednesday, the day after "long day Tuesday", Bath's double-training day. Might this interview be hard work?
No chance. It only takes a minute for the enthusiasm to kick in, and "Moodos" the magnificent is in full flow. "I really have enjoyed being England captain," he says. "If I'm asked to do it again, I'll love it as much as I have done until now." The next match, against Wales in Cardiff, is less than six weeks away, with a warm-weather camp in Portugal in between. And Martin Johnson, the manager, and his coaches have been busy meeting all the players. "It might be for five minutes with some of the guys," says Moody. "Obviously, they'll spend a little bit longer with me."
As an interviewee, the 32-year-old former Leicester Tiger doesn't mind taking stock, halfway through his first season playing for Bath and nine months away from his third World Cup. As a bloke, it is not his natural state. Asked whether he has had visions of standing in Auckland in October, being handed the World Cup, he says: "It flicks through your mind but you never really think of it in the context of the final, lifting the Webb Ellis, that sort of stuff. It just lingers there."
Until a couple of weeks ago, he hadn't checked on England's pool draw (Argentina, Scotland, Georgia, Romania). He still has no idea of the quarter-final pairings (for England, probably France or the All Blacks). "That's just the way a sporting life is," he says. "You're involved in the moment and whatever happens in that time is normally preparation for a coming game."
But he does not bat away the question on the minds of England's supporters, who certainly know the draw as they have started booking their trips Down Under. "We can definitely win the World Cup," says Moody. "I've been in two World Cup finals, in two very contrasting situations. We were probably favourites in 2003 and it was in our hands – pretty much – we were that good a side at the time and we had been together a very long time.
"In 2007 it was a complete contrast. We didn't know what the squad would be week to week, we weren't playing very well, at one stage it didn't look like we would even get out of the pool. All of a sudden as a group of players and management we knuckled it out and whatever happened, happened, and we were in the final. So, yes, the answer is we can win a World Cup. But it's a very difficult competition. Just getting through the
pool stage is hard enough and then it's a series of one-off games where you have to be at your best. We've certainly set ourselves in good stead coming out of the autumn. Going into the Six Nations it'll be important for us to take another step forward."
Moody's England are ranked fourth in the world – the best position under Johnson's 30-month management – yet they are a World Cup long shot at odds of 10-1 to 16-1 after the "won two, lost two" of last month's autumn internationals at Twickenham. The skipper says the matches against New Zealand and South Africa, albeit they were 10-point defeats, were valuable for toughening up the callow youngsters: Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs and the like.
But let's rewind a moment. If this is Moody's England, and continues to be in 2011, what does that amount to? Not the earnest stoicism of his immediate predecessor Steve Borthwick, that's for sure. A team huddle in the tingling, mettle-detecting seconds before November's record-breaking win over Australia broke up with Moody's team-mates in laughter.
"When you're on the pitch, that's purely what it's about," Moody says. "It's the excitement – 'this is awesome, I'm here, with this group of people, we're at Twickenham doing what we love'. Even through the tough times, back in '05 and '06 when we were losing, I've loved it. Those little interactions: how people react to what's said, behind closed doors and in the changing rooms. For me, when I get emotional about something, it comes out in a smile. I look at one of the lads before a game, you're pumped and excited about it, you stare him in the eye and he's got a stern look, and you know he's ready for it, and you know you're ready for it and that smile comes across and you're like, 'fucking happy days, this is why we play'."
In Moody's 14 seasons at Leicester he captained them twice: matches, not seasons. Johnson gave him the England job in France last March when Borthwick – now out of the squad all together – was injured. On tour in Australia, Moody led the side to defeat in Perth and victory in Sydney. "I had never thought, 'right, my goal is to be captain'," says Moody. "When I was asked, it was actually quite daunting. OK, I'll do it but will I be good enough? Johnno was good, he said, 'look mate, just be you, that's all that matters'. I took that on board and I'd like to think I haven't changed."
He took the Perth loss hard but it taught him what he could and could not control. He felt free enough before the autumn to film an advert for a beer, acting out his England team talk. Diametrically different to Borthwick, who wound himself into such a knot that he overcompensated, describing an indifferent win in Italy as if it was a 50-pointer.
"There was a great image for me in Sydney," says Moody. "We get up from a scrum and the Aussie front row are obviously gobbing off and Thommo [hooker Steve Thompson] has one of them by the throat and he is just smiling at 'em. You could see the passion and enjoyment guys get out of it when we do well. When we played the All Blacks, eight of our guys hadn't played against them before. You put a hit on them and they wince and go down, and you get a better understanding. We now understand as a squad what each side brings to the table. We have to keep tight and keep building."
There are questions over Moody's position. He once thought of leaving Leicester because two openside flankers – Neil Back and Josh Kronfeld – were ahead of him. Yet of late he has been his country's No 7, while conceding he is not a pure fetcher like Back. "I'm not as good as some of the guys in that position in that role," he admits. There was a sense, even so, that Tom Croft at blindside, Moody at seven and Nick Easter at No 8 best suited the current law interpretations. It's a debate similar to that between 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 in football.
Now with Croft waylaid by a shoulder injury, Moody's versatility could be handy. He could switch to six with Hendre Fourie, Steffon Armitage or Tom Wood coming in. "At six you get your hands on the ball more," Moody says. "At seven you're much more defensive. For a number of seasons at Leicester, with Shane Jennings, we played left and right and I enjoyed that because you could do a bit of both. South Africa and France have been making left and right work for a number of years. Richie [McCaw of New Zealand] and George [Smith of Australia] did it a different way. There will be injuries and there are always guys coming through. That pushes you as a player."
The immediate push for Bath is the need to halt a run of five defeats, at London Irish on New Year's Day. Last week when Ulster won at The Rec, almost certainly ending Bath's interest in the Heineken Cup, Moody put in a last-minute tackle, leapt up and got over the ball in a split second. The referee didn't like it; Moody had to bite his fat lip and lump it. He has always played on the edge: lung-bursting tackles and lunges for restarts.
Two years ago, when his next contract became a topic, Moody consulted his father, as he has always done, and decided it would be in France. He went to look at a few clubs. Then Bath's offer came along, and the England captaincy.
"When it came down to it," says Moody, "the move abroad didn't seem as good. There was the struggle with the RFU over England players being in France, and I've always enjoyed the Premiership. I took into account my wife and family [with Annie he has two toddler sons, Dylan and Ethan] and Bath was the best, the simplest, just the right decision.
"The first game, changing in that blue shirt, it felt very strange. But now it's exciting and it's a challenge. We have a great amount of ambition and [Bath owner] Bruce Craig's passion is evident to see. It will just take that one win to reach that potential, and once our new training centre is ready, it will just explode. Or, at least, that's the way it feels."
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