Moody the magnificent obsessive

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The Independent Online

They have no tickets to sell but they are calling it Rocky II at Welford Road, the rematch between the super heavyweights Leicester, the former champions of Europe, and Wasps, the holders of the Heineken Cup. Last week's collision at High Wycombe, which threatened to register on the Richter scale, went the way of the Tigers. It was an invaluable points victory on the road, but Lewis Moody thinks they should have delivered the knockout blow.

"We got off to a fantastic start with three tries in the first 20 minutes and then took our foot off the pedal," the England flanker said. "We were disappointed we didn't finish them off." What do they want? Blood?

"If we hadn't sat back we could have got a bonus point," Moody continued. "It was a niggly match, very physical, and for mental intensity it was up there with a Test match, but at the end I wasn't that knackered. The game didn't flow, it was stop-start. We're similar sides to a degree, with a lot of international players and strong back-lines. In terms of impact we have got a huge front row, and I am sure Wasps will have been working hard on their scrummaging. I'm hoping to see a bit more of the ball in hand."

Moody, who found himself in some space when he scored the first try last week, makes his 100th appearance for Leicester today, for which he will be presented with a green cap and a blue tie.

Leicester like loyalty. It has, however, taken him a hell of a long time to reach the milestone, a series of injuries interrupting a golden career. Like Jonny Wilkinson, he does not hold back.

Born in Ascot, Moody played for Bracknell Minis before moving to Oakham School in Leicester, where his coach was Ian Smith, the Tigers' flanker. "One summer I was invited along to Welford Road, and it was very daunting seeing people like Rory Underwood and Dean Richards."

Moody was not daunted for long. He became the youngest Tiger, at 18, to play in a league game when he made his debut in 1996, scoring two tries alongside Richards and John Wells. He had to wait five years for his Test debut, since when he has won 27 caps, playing a part in all seven of England's World Cup matches. A vital part at that. It was Moody who charged down Louis Koen's kick that led to the only try of the match in the opening victory over South Africa in Perth, and it was Moody, on as a replacement for Richard Hill, who won the line-out that led to Wilkinson's drop goal against Australia in the final in Sydney.

He played throughout the tournament with a stress fracture to his right foot. Moody had missed much of the previous season with a shoulder injury and had returned in time to feature in England's World Cup warm-up games. When he boarded the plane for Australia he did not have a spring in his step. "My foot was stiff and it was difficult to move it. I didn't think much about it, but as I was warming up for the game against South Africa it was becoming more and more difficult to shake it off. I managed to get through the World Cup and I didn't know how bad it was until I got back. At a Leicester training session somebody stamped on my foot and that was that."

Moody was out for 11 months and was warned by Wells, the Tigers' coach, that if he didn't get the rehabilitation right he might never play again. After eight weeks in plaster he wore what looked like a moon boot and limped around on crutches. "Frustrating wasn't the word. The comeback time was getting longer and longer, and four months became eight months. It's easy to lose your way. It becomes a mental thing."

Moody went on holiday and with his girlfriend Annie, an interior decorator, set about renovating an old cottage. Gradually he was able to walk, then jog and then sprint. "It's been by far the hardest thing I have done. I was the man the crocks trained with; each of them having me as a partner in the gym until they got over their injuries. I kept setting targets."

When he reappeared for Leicester, in the Heineken Cup against Calvisano in October, he scored two tries. He could not bring himself to think about returning to the England back row, which was minus Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio, both retired, and Richard Hill, injured. Andy Robinson, who knows a world-class flanker when he sees one, recalled Moody for the autumn series and he scored tries against Canada and Australia.

After England had lost to the Wallabies, Moody could not watch as George Gregan collected the Cook Cup. "It was devastating to go 15 points down, come back and then lose at the end. We had shown a huge amount of pride, but the fact is that we lost a match we should have won."

One of the reasons Moody has such difficulty in pronouncing the word "defeat" is that it has hardly entered his vocabulary, whether he has been playing for club or country. In 27 appearances for England he has been on the losing side only three times, an extraordinary record. Providing he can stay out of trouble, Moody has all sorts of things to look forward to in the new year, including the Six Nations' Championship and the Lions tour of New Zealand. And once again Leicester are going for a Premiership-Heineken Cup double.

Today Moody - since his return he has scored five tries in eight games for the Tigers, four of them from pushovers - renews acquaintance with Johnny O'Connor, whom he met for the first time last week. "He's a useful little player," Moody said. "How old is he? Geordan Murphy speaks highly of him."

Moody, who is 26, made only 10 appearances for Leicester in the past two seasons, which explains why he has had to wait an age to get to 100 and his green cap. "They start handing out the crystal when you've played 300 times," he said. "I am still young. There is plenty more to come."