Moody: 'I've had a great run at Leicester but at Bath we'll go from strength to strength'
As he faces the club he will join next season, Lewis Moody tells Chris Hewett why he senses an shift in the balance of power
Saturday 15 May 2010
Strange days? There have been none stranger. A volcano in Iceland closes airports in North Africa, George Osborne and Vince Cable walk hand in hand into the fires of the banking crisis and Lewis Moody prepares to leave Leicester for Bath by playing for Leicester against Bath. And not in any old match, either.
The second of tomorrow's Guinness Premiership semi-finals pits the most successful English club of the professional era against the greatest of the amateur era – clubs that built their supremacy on the assumption that no player operating at the height of his powers could conceivably contemplate joining someone else. On that basis, the man is flying in the face of history.
As Moody's form is somewhere near its apex, it could be said that this is Leicester's "Simon Halliday moment". A couple of decades ago, Halliday left Bath for Harlequins – a decision that reduced the movers and shakers at the Recreation Ground to a state of spluttering disbelief. The England centre was not forgiven in a hurry. After Stuart Barnes, one of the guiding spirits at Bath, had earned his side a John Player Cup final victory over Quins by dropping a goal in extra time, Halliday extended the hand of reconciliation by saying: "If anyone had to drop a goal to beat me in a cup final, I'm glad it was you, Stuart." To which Barnes responded, sulphurically: "If I had to drop a goal to beat anyone in a cup final, I'm glad it was you, Simon."
Quite how Leicester will respond to the sight of their home-grown flanker wearing a Bath shirt is anyone's guess, but it can be predicted with some certainty that they will not throw a party in celebration. The Midlanders identified Moody as a class act long before he made the first of his 215 appearances for them, three months into his 19th year, and developed him with the utmost care and patience. Since they lose players they would rather not lose about as often as they lose big matches at home, which is not very often at all, his departure will hurt them. It was big news when it was announced in March, and it is still the talk of the town now.
Having initially said the usual things about "looking forward to a new challenge" and "the time being right for a change", Moody has no use for platitudes now he is within 24 hours or so of a very public meeting with his future employers. "It is," he acknowledges, "a slightly bizarre situation – a situation I've never previously encountered or had any reason to worry about. Fortunately, I'm pretty single-minded when it comes to rugby. Nothing will change as far as my commitment to Leicester is concerned: I can't afford to let it change me, and I won't. The most important thing is not to let the club down, so that will be my motivation. Come match-day, I don't believe anything else will even register with me."
The thing that registered with him when it came to deciding on his future was the offer of a three-year deal at Bath: two years longer, it seems, than the one tabled by Leicester, who figured that a player of Moody's age (he will turn 32 next month) might not provide the greatest return on their investment, especially when considered alongside an alarming injury record – his gung-ho style of back-row play puts him at the high end of the medical risk calculation – and his international commitments with England, which will be extremely heavy between the start of the next season and the end of the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, which runs deep into the autumn of that year. It is hard to argue with their logic from a financial point of view, but the graveyard of professional sport is full of clubs who knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. Bath may not see as much of Moody as they would like over the next 18 months, but they still love the fact that he will soon be theirs.
"Once I reached the stage of knowing I'd be moving on, I spoke to a number of clubs," he says. "Most of them were French. I'd had this idea for a while that I'd end up playing in France some day and it was a very attractive option. But once I'd been to Bath, had a good look around and spoken to the people there about their ambitions for the club, there wasn't much of a decision to make. I felt instinctively that the place would suit me."
Just as the demands of captaincy appear to suit him, much to the surprise of those who had the flanker down as one of life's natural followers, one of the poor bloody infantry whose "point me at the enemy and I'll march" approach has been such an essential ingredient in the packs of Leicester and England. When the Saracens lock Steve Borthwick aggravated a knee problem during the Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield in March and pulled out of the national side four days before the Six Nations finale with France, the red-rose management turned to Moody rather than Mike Tindall or Nick Easter. Given that they had dropped him for the game in Scotland the previous weekend, it was very much a bolt from the blue.
"I can't say the England captaincy was ever a massive ambition of mine," he remarks, looking back on an experience that, in Borthwick's continuing absence, is all but certain to be repeated when the Test team meet the Wallabies in Perth and Sydney next month. "All I ever wanted was to play for my country, and to do it for as long as I could. Nothing else has ever mattered." All the same, the caretaker leadership – if indeed that is what it was and is – must count for something. "It registered at the time, I suppose. It was a huge privilege to be asked to do the job, I loved it while it was happening and if I have the chance to do it again, I'll jump at it. But I'd never seen myself in the role and I don't think much about it now, despite what's happened."
Self-effacing indeed. Yet he received big raps for his performance as captain, from fellow players as well as from Martin Johnson, the manager who put him there. What did he do that was so hot? "I have no idea," he replies. "I really don't know what kind of captain I was. I certainly didn't make any Churchillian speeches. Martin told me not to make the mistake of speaking every other second, and I didn't. I must have said something, but I can't remember what it was. All I know is that I didn't go over the top. I'm not a head-banger, despite what some people seem to think."
He may ultimately find himself leading Bath, but that is something for another day – another age, almost. For now, it is Leicester or bust. Tomorrow's game will, if he finishes on the losing side, be his last in Tigers garb; at best, he has only two games left. The emotional charge is beginning to course through his veins.
"This move to Bath will be good for me, I'm sure," he says. "They've found a style that really works for them and as the two clubs seem to meet in so many big contests at the moment – it goes in cycles: for five years it was all about Leicester and Wasps; now we keep running into Bath in the top competitions – I've become pretty familiar with what they do. They're a close bunch and they battle hard for each other, which is what I've always been used to in my rugby.
"But I can't and won't forget the 14 wonderful years I've spent at Welford Road. When you join a club as a schoolboy and you're still there at 30-plus, it's impossible to see it as anything other than a special place. I've had a fantastic run: just being around a team that won successive Heineken Cup titles and four Premierships on the trot would have been enough for me. Do I see Bath going from strength to strength over the coming years? Yes, I do. But I also know that Leicester will always be there or thereabouts. It's the way they are."
Lewis Moody was speaking on behalf of special business insurer QBE, official insurance partner of the Guinness Premiership, www.qbeeurope.com/rugby
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