Lewis Moody has had a tough time of it these last few months.
Injured in January and again towards the end of the Premiership season, he joined his fellow World Cup candidates in summer camp with his right knee in a rare old state. In the first of the August warm-up matches against Wales at Twickenham, the ravaged ligament flared once more and he was out of commission for another few weeks. Even here, as he embarked on a campaign he had feared he would miss completely, there were problems that shook him to the core.
"The medical team held me back from the opening match against Argentina, much to my annoyance, but it was totally the right call," the captain said yesterday. "It meant I was right for Georgia, and while the knee issue was in the back of my mind in the days leading into the game, I was convinced I was fit. Then, during the warm-up, I felt a slight tweak and had an 'oh no, what do I do now?' moment. Was it a question of telling the physios, or getting on with it? Fortunately, I didn't feel it once during the actual match. As things stand now, I have no fitness concerns at all. Not one iota of a problem."
Now in his 11th year as an international sportsman, the debate continues as to whether the Bath flanker is a genuine breakaway forward. Some international coaches see him as a high-class No 7; others argue he is a blind-side with a hint of open-side in his rugby DNA; still more insist that he should stick to the No 6 role and have done with it. This much is certain: Moody brings something unique to the England back-row operation: a mix of energy, aggression, persistence and utter selflessness – his disregard for his own physical well-being is legendary – that makes him as effective in his own way as any other red-rose forward of the last six or seven years.
He has had to draw on all his rich experience of World Cup rugby – he was on the field when England won the 2003 tournament and started the final four years ago – and put his best foot forward on the man-management front to hold things together here, in the face of so much rotten publicity. "In a competition like this, you're cocooned to a degree: the players live in a bubble," he remarked. "I've never read much that is written or listened much to the stuff that is broadcast and I try to stay as far away from it as possible, but as some of it is bound to get through, it's important that players insulate themselves and focus on what they're here to do. We've become very tight, I'm pleased to say. Everything that's happened has made us more connected."
He succeeded Steve Borthwick as captain and while Martin Johnson did not exactly cover himself in glory by making the change in the way he did – waiting for the Saracens lock to miss games through injury and then denying him the opportunity to restake his claim was hardly likely to win him a prize as the most enlightened human-resources specialist of the century – there is no denying that Moody has put his stamp on the job. There are still many internationals who regard Borthwick as the most committed and professional leader in the English game, but when he was at his most lugubrious, his most Eeyore-ish, he rubbed the rugby public up the wrong way. Moody, by contrast, is the feel-good factor personified: boundlessly optimistic, unfailingly positive.
Today could be his day. If he can lead the red-rose surge against a highly accomplished French loose combination of Thierry Dusautoir, Julien Bonnaire and Imanol Harinordoquy and drive England towards the last four, he and his team will have met the minimum standard required of them. If he could then find a way into the final and make a third consecutive appearance in the sport's great showpiece – an opportunity also open to Jonny Wilkinson, but to no one else – it will be an achievement to set down in the annals.
He takes no account of England's very decent record against this particular opposition – "History is history," he said when asked whether he and his team would take any psychological advantage into today's game – and has spent all week thinking about his own players rather than those who will oppose him. "You do your analysis, of course," he conceded, "but the main thing in a week like this is to make sure you're physically right for the game and that you're absolutely on top of the mental side, which is so important.
"These occasions are very intense. I have so much nervous energy at the moment, I'll probably pack and re-pack my kitbag 20 times – I'll do it so often, I'll actually increase the chances of forgetting my boots. To be honest, I wish I could just get out of bed and walk straight on to the pitch."