Ask Lewis Moody to identify the individual who has caused him the most grief over the 45 months of his spasmodic international career, and he unhesitatingly plumps for some big bloke from New Zealand by the name of Lomu, presumably because "Jolly Jonah" is the one rugby player on earth capable of surviving a "Moody special" - not so much a tackle as a headlong, low-flying, horizontally-propelled, rocket-fuelled assault on the least protected parts of the human anatomy - without batting an eyelid, let alone breaking stride. But the available evidence suggests that the greatest threat to Moody's well-being is Moody himself.
Self-preservation is not his strongest suit, by any manner of means. Had he been around 15 years ago, he could have linked up with Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson as a third "Dangerous Brother" and earned himself a packet. Having spent 10 months of the post-World Cup year struggling to overcome a stress fracture of the foot - not his fault, admittedly - he promptly curtailed his own comeback by damaging wrist tendons while engaged in the traditionally harmless activity of opening a Christmas present. Then, three weeks ago, he made a "nothing" appearance off the bench for Leicester, who were just finishing off an 80-point Premiership victory over Newcastle, and succeeded in infecting an existing wound on the ring finger of his right hand.
As a result of this folly, Moody ended up in a London hospital, having antibiotics pumped into his system via an intravenous drip. He discharged himself in time to play against Ireland in Dublin - he appeared for the anthems at Lansdowne Road with his finger strapped like a miniature Tutankhamun - and somehow managed to make it through the full 80 minutes. It will be strapped again during today's Six Nations match with Italy at Twickenham, for the offending digit has not returned to anything like its optimum condition. In fact, the top joint looks like a maggot-ravaged plum: split, swollen, purple, eaten away. "The boys are avoiding me," he said this week. "They think I have leprosy."
By rights, Moody should have struggled in Dublin 13 days ago. As it turned out, he produced one of the most vibrant performances of his 29-cap career - a wonderfully energetic, gung-ho contribution to place alongside his remarkable effort against the touring All Blacks in 2002.
"I put it down to the mix of antibiotics and adrenaline," he joked. "Actually, I'd have been seriously pissed off had I missed that match. For one thing, it was my first opportunity to player against my housemate" - Geordan Murphy, the Leicester and Ireland full-back - "and besides, I'd let too much international rugby slip as it was."
Far too much, as a matter of fact. Andy Robinson, the head coach, regards Moody as a "given" when it comes to team selection, but there has been precious little momentum about the flanker's passage along the highways and byways of the international game. He made his mark quickly enough - within a few months of his first start in a front-line England match, against Wales in the 2002 Six Nations, he knew what it was to be picked ahead of Lawrence Dallaglio and, much to his own astonishment, Neil Back, alongside whom he played, and continues to play, at club level and from whom he has learned so many tricks of his unforgiving trade. Frustratingly, the injuries also kicked in early. One of the advantages the 35-year-old Back still has over his 26-year-old apprentice is the ability to stay fit - or at least, fit enough to turn out every weekend, as opposed to one weekend in three.
Yet it is clear that Robinson includes Moody among his chosen ones - the players around whom he will construct England's defence of the world title in France two and a half years hence. And how many are there in this élite cadre? Fewer than you would think, especially when it comes to the forwards. Like most red rose packs of the professional era, this current unit is Leicester-based: Graham Rowntree, Ben Kay and the new captain, Martin Corry, will join their accident-prone colleague in facing the Azzurri this afternoon, and had Julian White been fit, he would have been there too. Come 2007, though, all bar Moody may have disappeared into the past tense. Rowntree is almost 34, Corry will be 32 this autumn and Kay is close to 30.
Even though today's pack is considered green by comparison with the World Cup-winning model, Robinson can almost smell the anno domini creeping up on it. This is why Moody is a "given". Provided he finds a way of stringing a dozen games together, he will be handed increasing amounts of responsibility; indeed, the coach has already started the process by appointing his favourite flanker to the role of defensive captain, which he shares with the Newcastle centre Jamie Noon. According to Robinson's second-in-command, the influential defensive specialist Phil Larder, there is no one better suited to the task.
"In a perfect world, you want your No 7 in the role because defensively speaking, he is more in the game than anyone else," Larder explained. "But you can't ask any old No 7 to do it, because it's a question of aptitude. There are issues of personality and strength of character to consider; apart from anything else, the defensive captain needs the complete, unquestioning respect of his colleagues, because he's asking them for enthusiasm and commitment and discipline. Lewis has shown us that he can ask for these things, and get them. His technique is superb - I'd say he's better defensively than Lawrence Dallaglio ever was - and that is a huge advantage. He leads by example, too. He's won the defensive award in two of his last three games."
England have conceded only two tries in their three Six Nations outings to date, and Moody did not play when Shane Williams of Wales dismantled the red rose barricade at the Millennium Stadium in the opening round. France could not find a way through, while the Irish had to summon every last ounce of their considerable attacking genius to conjure a five-pointer at Lansdowne Road. That score, created by Murphy and executed in peerless fashion by Brian O'Driscoll, proved the difference between the two sides and left Moody in a state of advanced exasperation.
"We missed three tackles all game and our delivery rate in defence was 94 per cent," he said, a note of bemusement in his voice. "I don't think I've ever lost a game of rugby on those sorts of figures, so I was down for some time after the final whistle. People talk about taking the positives from a defeat, but it's not easy to do when you're playing for your country. There are positives, though. We're a new side, learning new things each time we play together. As people grow into their roles, we'll start closing out the tight games - and let's face it, our games in this tournament could not have been tighter.
"People have short memories, don't they? I can remember going through precisely this with Leicester after our second Heineken Cup win. Suddenly, we were mid-table, struggling to qualify for Europe. It happens. The important thing is reacting in the right way. The bad times are going to come, because that's the nature of what we're involved in. How do you use the experience to your advantage? There's the question."
Not for the first time in recent months, England find themselves in uncharted waters. Corry, a long-time partner of Moody's in the Leicester back row, will be breaking his cherry as red rose captain, having won more than half his 35 caps from the bench. Taken in isolation, that statistic is not a source of encouragement to those Twickenhamites who long for a return to the ruthless, hard-headed, authoritative performances of the Martin Johnson era, but Moody is entirely persuaded by his club-mate's leadership potential.
"It's bizarre when one of your mates becomes the captain of the side you're playing in," he admitted, "but Martin is made of the right stuff. He and Johnno are of the same ilk, I think - they are very strong on understanding and addressing the simple realities of the game. Neither are overly outspoken, but they know how to get their point across if they feel it necessary. Martin has always been respected as a player, so I couldn't be happier for him. And from a personal point of view, I'm used to having forwards as captains. I like playing alongside people I can look up to, both in physical stature and in presence."
He is no midget himself. At 6ft 4ins and a tad over 16st, he is, like Richard Hill before him, handsomely equipped to fill the blind-side berth, as well as the breakaway one he occupies now. Indeed, many good judges see him as a natural No 6 with delusions of seven-hood, but Robinson disagrees. So too does Moody.
"I prefer open-side, always have done," he said. "I enjoy getting my hands on the ball, which you tend to do as a blind-side, and that's just as well, because Neil Back hasn't given me too many chances at No 7 at Leicester, has he? When you come down to it, though, the important thing is to have a place in the team. Bob Dwyer (the World Cup-winning Wallaby coach who helped nurture Moody at Leicester) once told me: 'It's better to have two specialist open-sides in your back row than be lumbered with some useless great mute on the blind-side.' I think he had a point."Reuse content