Not so very long ago, there were three certainties about Lewis Moody: that he would always generate more joules of energy than any other player on the field; that he would, at some stage during a season, find himself on the painful end of an orthopaedic calamity; and that he would lead England at the World Cup in New Zealand.
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The last of those certainties has suddenly turned into a maybe. The Bath forward needs a strong performance – perhaps two strong performances – over the next few days if he is to fly to All Black country as the main man.
The odds are still heavily in his favour, and when England take the field at a sold-out Twickenham for this afternoon's fascinating warm-up match with Wales, Moody will be the first man out of the tunnel. But the England manager Martin Johnson, his one-time Leicester club-mate, raised fresh questions about the captaincy yesterday by declining to rule out a change of tack. "We'll name a captain when we name the squad," he said sharply, and as the squad will not be revealed for another fortnight or so, the issue remains live.
Until recently, Johnson had been unequivocal about Moody's status. "Lewis is our captain," he remarked, more than once, ahead of the World Cup training camp launch in June. But the 33-year-old flanker has played only three and a half games of club rugby since suffering a knee injury in January, and while he has made rapid progress on the fitness front – "Our conditioners have done an awesome job," he said before disappearing to the cinema for his usual eve-of-match chill-out – he has points to prove.
"When you're judging players, there are measurables – how many rucks are they hitting? how many tackles are they making? – and there are intangibles, and someone like Lewis brings a lot to the squad in terms of intangibles," Johnson said. "Leadership is a part of that. But guys have to get themselves in the team first. If someone is playing better, are we going to pick that person in the side? Yes."
There are eight back-row forwards chasing a maximum of half a dozen places in the final party, five of whom – Moody, James Haskell, Tom Wood, the Harlequins captain Chris Robshaw and the naturalised South African Hendre Fourie – have played serious rugby in the breakaway position. Johnson may have seen something over the six weeks of sweatshop activity to persuade him that the optimum combination does not include the current skipper. Equally, this sudden reluctance to commit himself to Moody as captain may simply reflect a desire to conceal his hand until the last possible moment.
Moody seemed unconcerned. "I've felt I've had to prove myself at every stage of my career," he said, denying there was any question of simply falling back on the experience gained over a decade-long international career, or on the credit earned from 66 appearances in the white shirt. "My approach is to play as well as I can. If I'm made captain on top of that, I'll see it as a great honour."
If Wales are also thinking about leadership, it is because Matthew Rees, their Lions hooker, is struggling with neck problems and has some distance to go before he can be certain of making it to next month's global tournament. By coincidence, it is Moody's direct opponent, the scavenging Cardiff Blues groundhog Sam Warburton, who shoulders the burden this afternoon. "I couldn't have imagined leading an international side at 22, so fair play to him," the Englishman commented.
Warburton will be one of a number of obvious first-choice players on show, along with the wing Shane Williams, the centre Jamie Roberts, the scrum-half Mike Phillips, the second-row pairing of Bradley Davies and Alun Wyn Jones, and the blind-side flanker Danny Lydiate. All things considered, the Red Dragonhood are not in a mood to mess around. Certainly, there is no likelihood of a repeat of the 2007 warm-up fixture, in which England scored 62 points and won with embarrassing ease.
"I was watching that day," Johnson recalled, "and I remember thinking: 'What did Wales get out of that?' I'm not sure to what degree they were experimenting, but I've never seen the point of playing people in these warm-up fixtures who you don't think are going to be picked for the tournament, just for the sake of giving them a game. This is precious time. Ideally, you want players to have at least two starts before the first World Cup outing, because however much work you do in training, you can't replicate the tempo of a match."
Should England struggle – and given the untested nature of their back division, there is a chance they might – Johnson will not fall back on the hoary old Welsh excuse of warm-up defeats gone by, along the lines of: "We're still in heavy training and not in match trim." The manager believes both sides will make mistakes this afternoon, but he insists he is satisfied with his players' physical condition. "I wouldn't say I'm absolutely happy – there's never an upper limit when it comes to fitness; ask Jonny Wilkinson – but I'm comfortable," he acknowledged. "We're ready to play."
Johnson will not field anything resembling a first-choice side until the visit to Ireland on 27 August, two weeks before the World Cup opener with Argentina in Dunedin. Until then, it could be a bumpy ride.Reuse content