Are England missing Moody?
England's recent troubles arguably began when Lewis Moody limped out of the last Six Nations. Chris Hewett hears why he is desperate to play for his country again
Saturday 17 January 2009
Might English rugby's recent seismic upheavals, powerful enough to have woken even the most somnolent of Twickenham council members from their post-prandial slumbers, be laid at the door of Lewis Moody?
The thought takes the Leicester flanker by surprise – it is quite an accusation, after all – but imagine it this way: Moody completes last season's Six Nations opener against Wales as he started it, harassing the hell out of the visiting playmakers and helping his team to the 30-point victory everyone was expecting at half-time. England kick on for the rest of the tournament, winning the title and ensuring that Brian Ashton stays in place as head coach. There is no blind panic, no sacking, no scandal, no Martin Johnson.
"A bit harsh," Moody says, after considering the implications. And so it is. But the fact remains that England's current problems began with his premature departure from the field on that fateful day this time last year. Moody was followed in short order by Tom Rees, a double whammy that left England so bereft in the back-row department that poor old Ben Kay, no one's idea of a ground-covering loose forward, spent the entire second half on the blind-side flank, wondering what on earth he was supposed to be doing and struggling to tell his rear end from his elbow. As Moody's opposite number, Martyn Williams, said afterwards: "We can't afford to forget the hammering we took before the interval, because we probably won't win a game like that ever again."
It is a matter of record that when Moody hobbled away from public view, he was suffering from a damaged Achilles tendon. What happened then is not quite so well known. "They sent me to a specialist in Sweden," he recalls. "I was given only a local anaesthetic for the operation, so I was able to hear everything being said, and pretty much the first thing I heard after the knife went in was the surgeon say: 'Oh... I didn't see that on the scan.' You can guess how good it made me feel.
"Basically, the tendon was badly ruptured and the only thing they could do was remove 50 per cent of it, which meant I'd be out of rugby for twice as long as originally predicted. Injury is part and parcel of the game, as I know better than most, but that really got to me. I went into the hospital feeling pissed off and came out feeling really bloody despondent. At least I was in a country where they liked their beer. I had no hesitation in treating myself to a few, even at those prices."
By way of making it a job lot, Moody then decided to bring forward a long-scheduled operation to repair damaged cartilage in his hip – a serious bout of surgery that rendered him immobile, with his entire leg in plaster. (Significantly more plastered, you might say, than was ever the case during his spell in Scandinavia.) As a consequence of all this, he spent more than eight months away from the elite game, and there were moments when the self-questioning turned into something more akin to self-interrogation.
"Part of the problem," he says, "was that I felt in really good form when I picked up the injury at Twickenham – more on top of my game, perhaps, than at any point in my career. It wasn't so much a case of wondering whether I'd ever play again, as fearing I wouldn't be any good when I eventually got myself back on the field. I'm not the best at handling frustration, and to me, nothing would be more frustrating than returning to full fitness and finding that the form had disappeared. I'd have hated that. The thought of it worried me for quite a long time."
Happily for Leicester – not to mention England, for whom he is expected to resume international duty when the Six Nations starts anew in three weeks' time – he is every bit as good as he was. Nine matches into his comeback, he is considered so important to his club's cause that the acting head coach Richard Cockerill rested him from last weekend's Premiership derby at Northampton, where the Tigers promptly lost both the contest for the loose ball and the match, and has withheld him again from this afternoon's Heineken Cup pool tie with Treviso. Next Saturday is do-or-die day against Ospreys, the best side in Wales. Moody will be in the starting line-up for that one, definitely.
"After the injury problems, a fortnight's break at this point was always part of the plan," he says, "but I can't stand missing matches. I never could, right from a youngster, and now I've missed so many, a weekend without a match makes me even more mad. I'm really hungry for rugby now, but when I think it through, there is a positive side to what happened to me in 2008. So often, I've played through a season, toured with England in the summer and come back absolutely knackered. As we speak, I'm the opposite of knackered. I'm desperate to play as often as I possibly can."
Both Leicester and England need everything he has to offer – his energy and aggression, his line-out athleticism, his bravery over the ball, his unerring instinct for the charge-down. Neither team is in the best of shape, although the Tigers occasionally deliver a performance of sorts. (The last 15 minutes of their recent Premiership match with Bath were decent enough, as Moody well remembers, having delivered the scoring pass for Tom Croft's winning try in stoppage time.)
"We can't seem to gel – we were even disappointed after the Bath game, if it's possible to be disappointed about beating the side at the top of the table," he admits. "We're letting tight matches slip away from us, matches Leicester sides of the past would have won far more often than not." Might this be down to the lack of coaching continuity, resulting from last summer's sacking of Marcelo Loffreda after less than a season in charge and the recent release on compassionate grounds of Heyneke Meyer, which may or may not prove permanent? "I can't say it hasn't had an effect," he concedes.
"But look, there could be a million reasons, from injuries to key players to the effect of the Experimental Law Variations. All I know is that it's not the fault of one individual. We pride ourselves at Leicester on being tight like a family, so any problems that arise are collective problems. It's how we get through. And right now, we're tighter than ever. When I look at some of the other flankers in the club who don't always get a chance to play, people like Ben Herring and Ben Woods, and see their enthusiasm in training, I know we're still strong. Very often, it's those who aren't picked who are most important in securing success."
Moody says that Cockerill, a tempestuous character in anyone's language, is taking an unusually mellow approach towards his increased responsibilities. "He's calmer now than I've seen him for a long time, although he still shouts a lot." But what of Johnson, the England manager, alongside whom he played on countless occasions, most notably in three mighty triumphs, two of the European variety and one on an even bigger scale? How is the World Cup-winning captain coping with the smelly end of the stick in his hand?
"Johnno is Johnno," Moody replies. "He's a born winner, and born winners tend to get a little frustrated when they find themselves losing. The results in the autumn will have annoyed him, for sure, but I think we need a reality check here. That England team was a new one playing against the very strongest sides in world rugby, week on week. The performance against the Springboks was pretty disappointing, but for 60 minutes against New Zealand it was a proper game. I'm sure things will come good if we show a little patience."
Patience, and some inspired selection. The England team has its barren areas, not least in the tight five of the scrum, but there is now an embarrassment of riches in the breakaway position. Assuming Moody stays in one piece and holds off the challenge of the Bath captain Michael Lipman, his long-term contest with Tom Rees of Wasps will be one for the connoisseur. Both have Lions ambitions in South Africa this summer; both fancy their chances of some World Cup business in New Zealand in 2011. Moody has already been to two global tournaments, playing in the final on each occasion. "I'd love to think I could make it three," he says.
Try stopping him. He may be 30, but forces of rugby nature seldom act their age on the field. The man they call "Crazy Horse" is still crazy after all these years, if not a little crazier – and for that, both Leicester and England can be truly thankful.
My Other Life
"My son Dylan was born last March, a month after I picked up the Achilles injury, and it was a real blessing having him around. It took the edge off my frustration at missing so much rugby. He's the best fun ever and even though I'm back playing, he dominates my time. More than one person has mentioned that he's just like his dad, running around and doing daft things, most of them head first. I've noticed myself that he's particularly good at charge-downs, but it's easier for him. When he does it, he lands on his bed. When I do it, I run the risk of getting a face full of boot."
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