Two World Cup finals and one depressing World Cup misfire into his long, body-busting tour of duty as a professional rugby player, Lewis Moody ended his international career yesterday, leaving England in need of a captain – and, far more urgently, of an open-side flanker capable of mixing it with the best breakaway forwards in the sport.
Moody's decision was hardly surprising: at 33, he had no chance of a fourth visit to a global tournament. But the poverty of red-rose resources in his position is more transparent as a result of his departure.
Moody was not a natural No 7 himself – more of a 6.5, if truth be told – but he had the mindset of a specialist groundhog, if not the skill set. As Martin Johnson, the England manager, said yesterday: "He put his body on the line for the team more times than even he can remember. To play in two finals and lead his country in a third campaign is a great testament to him. He will be missed on and off the field." After 71 Tests, the Ascot-born forward will continue to play Premiership and Heineken Cup rugby for Bath, whom he joined last season after a long stint at Leicester.
With a little luck, he will have a quieter time of it in the West Country than he had in New Zealand, where England's many and varied extra-curricular problems placed his leadership under considerable pressure. Those problems may yet do for Johnson, his former clubmate at Welford Road. If it does, Moody will be pleased he made an early decision and had done with it.
Yesterday, he had the good grace to acknowledge that his team's behaviour early in the tournament, when several players indulged in an all-too-public drinking binge after beating Argentina in their opening pool match, was a long way short of brilliant – an admission made by precious few members of the red-rose party. "We were given an evening off to have food and socialise," he said of the now infamous evening in Queenstown.
"By 9.30pm, I was not comfortable: we were getting more and more attention in terms of people wanting autographs and photographs. I was very aware of my position as England captain and I left around 10pm; I was leaving as the other group [the more enthusiastic party animals] were arriving.
"In hindsight, I would have loved to have said to them all 'let's go', to have made everyone come home with me. But we are all grown men and the reality is that we decided not to impose an alcohol ban. We are professionals; we trust each other to have the team at heart, to make choices knowing that what we do as individuals affects the team.
"We talked at length before the tournament about teamship. There were rules in place. We talked about conduct, about what was acceptable and what was not. But you can only make people aware, tell them and tell them. Some have to get burned before they understand. It is the most bitterly annoying thing imaginable."
He deserved better than to bow out saying those kinds of things, but his colleagues – some of them, like the centre Mike Tindall, very senior colleagues – left him in a bad position. As for the future, Moody's successor as flanker – and, indeed, as captain – is in the gift of the red-rose back-roomers. A decision will be made before Christmas and announced on New Year's Day. Whether Johnson and his coaching colleagues play any part in that process remains to be seen. The likelihood as things stand is that they will not.
England captaincy: Three contenders
Nick Easter (Harlequins)
The No 8 has two World Cups behind him and has been a senior player for some time, leading England twice over the last year, but, at age 33, is hardly one for the future.
Dylan Hartley (Northampton)
An effective captain at club level, the hooker was being talked of as a potential leader before the World Cup. Then he lost his Test place to the veteran Steve Thompson.
Tom Wood (Northampton)
Bold option. Mature, single-minded and respected. Unfortunately, not considered an automatic choice, largely because he falls between two stools positionally.