James Lawton: Unlike England, Moody deserves praise for leaving the party early


Something extremely odd happened at the end of the World Cup of rugby that Richie McCaw and Thierry Dusautoir turned into a personal issue of epic proportions. It was that England's captain Lewis Moody, as best he could given his team's performance here, joined on the list of tournament heroes his counterparts of New Zealand and France. Well, sort of.

He did it with his resignation speech, which was hardly the platform for glory granted him at the Telstra stadium in Sydney eight years ago when as replacement for the great Richard Hill he won the line-out ball that launched the move that finished with Jonny Wilkinson's winning drop goal. But, yes, it did require a kind of heroism and Moody produced it when he became the first member of the England squad to admit publicly that arguably the worst, most unprofessional campaign of a major nation in the tournament's recent history had causes other than some destructive media campaign.

Moody's courage, such as it was, went beyond this mere statement of the obvious. It also included a degree of self-criticism. He revealed that he sensed the potential for disaster, felt extreme discomfort when he left the bar at 10pm on the evening of Dwarfgate, even as some of his team-mates, including vice-captain Mike Tindall, were displaying the party mood.

It has to be noted that some in English rugby are less than overwhelmed by Moody's mea culpa even while allowing that he is a conspicuously decent character. They say it has come a good month too late and that it may not be totally separate from the need to publicise a forthcoming autobiography.

However, it is maybe worth recognising that the result is the first dent in the appalling suspicion that one of the English problems is not so much the denial of fault but a failure to understand, just about completely, the nature of it.

The retiring captain's statement has already been given an airing but the crucial segments are worth recalling in what they tell us about the pressures that were allowed to build after manager Martin Johnson's decision not to impose any kind of curbs on the public behaviour of his players, a mistake that was compounded by his failure to make any kind of significant response, as in sending the most egregious offenders back on the first plane. Crucially, and after admitting his regrets that as captain he did not order the players back to the team hotel, Moody said: "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 people have to get burned before they understand. It is the most bitterly annoying thing imaginable."

It cannot have been easy for Moody to say these things, partly because of the implications for the regime of his former World Cup-winning team-mate Johnson, partly because it required a total contradicting of the self-serving stream of euphemisms pouring from the lips of his team-mates.

For whatever reason, Moody has done what, sooner or later, all self-respecting professionals must do. First he looked in the mirror and was not entirely pleased with what he saw. He then assessed the performance of those players who in a perfect world might have been expected to follow his lead. When the All Black stars Cory Jane and Israel Dagg got drunk, senior colleague Piri Weepu dragged them out of the bar. On reflection, Moody concludes that he might have done the same to some of his men.

That he didn't is plainly a regret that will linger down the years. However, he said what he had to say. This may not make him Richie McCaw or Thierry Dusautoir but it does establish him as an England rugby player with the nerve to note the difference between right and wrong. After the last few weeks, it is surely a parting gift of incalculable value – and perhaps a focal point for new leadership perhaps provided by someone like Sir Clive Woodward or Nick Mallett.



Lawton's heroes of the World Cup

There were enough of them to make this World Cup memorable and never a time when you feared there might be too few to mention.

The Welsh had a small division of outstanding candidates and nothing was more moving than the testimony of Leigh Halfpenny, who came to the tournament straight from a perilous foot operation and on the eve of the semi-final misadventure against France spoke of his debt to his grandfather, a former Swansea player, who met him after school and took him for kicking practice. When Halfpenny's long penalty attempt, which might have carried Wales to the final, fell a metre short you knew the extent of his sadness – you knew it was an ache that would never go away.

It was something then to see Halfpenny close the Welsh campaign in the third-place match against the Wallabies with a try that came at the end of 30 phases. It was a reminder of what this young, ultimately ill-fated team had achieved and what might be ahead.

On the international field there is nothing ahead now for 36-year-old Brad Thorn but if in the end the title of player of the tournament became a dispute between such remarkable back-row performers as McCaw and Dusautoir, Imanol Harinordoquy and Jerome Kaino, the gnarled old second-rower won himself a special place. It was as maybe the defining representative of both his team and his nation.

Thorn normally eschews showy sentiment but in the end, with the trophy gathered in, the immense All Black wept unashamedly. He did so in his pride for the country he had served so well, one which had kept its head and its courage in some desperate times.

Yes, he knew that winning the World Cup would not bring back one victim of the Canterbury earthquakes, or make any more optimistic a farmer who had seen his land ruined, or diminish the loss of those loved ones of the miners who died in the Pike River disaster, but it had brought, no doubt, some lightening of the national mood. As he put, "it's good to be able to do a little bit for your people".



Lawton's Villains

The England squad who didn't understand what they should have been about.

The International Rugby Board who imposed a cruel burden on the second-tier nations who were required to play at twice the rate of the major teams – a TV-friendly compromise that may have jacked up revenue but was ruinous to the idea that teams like Georgia and Russia could get anything like a true measurement of their progress.

Irish referee Alain Rolland who gave a red card to Wales's Sam Warburton with hardly a moment's pause for reflection or consultation and ruined one of the most important matches of the tournament. No one disputed the need for vigilance in the matter of dangerous tackling, no one said that Warburton didn't have a case to answer. However, a consensus formed by some extremely experienced rugby men, including former All Black captain Wayne Shelford, who works for a foundation which helps the most severe victims of rugby injury, was emphatic. A yellow card, followed by a review, would have been most sensible – and just.



And the slightly villainous...

Casting by the New Zealand Herald for an updated All Black version of the film Invictus, the Matt Damon movie based on the story of the Springbok triumph over New Zealand in 1995. The recommendation for the part of Cory Jane, caught out in a drinking spree, is Robert Downey Jr.

The theory is that the actor, having once been caught in possession of a bag of cocaine and a .357 Magnum while naked behind the wheel of his Porsche, would bring a certain empathy to the role, if not a whole lot to the prospect of catching a high ball in a state of extreme calm and concentration.


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