Lewis Moody: Former England captain's Moody blues
Flanker tells Brian Viner that woeful World Cup still haunts him, how England players must win back trust and that Martin Johnson is still right man to be in charge
Thursday 10 November 2011
Lewis Moody had already been interviewed on BBC Breakfast and the Today programme by the time he emerged into the reception at Television Centre in west London at 9.15am yesterday, and he still had a long day of media engagements ahead of him. England's most-capped flanker is a powerful, resourceful fellow, but he already looked a little weary. Even his paper poppy seemed to be wilting slightly.
Having written an autobiography, cutely titled Mad Dog: An Englishman, Moody had long understood what his obligations to his publishers would be. What he didn't know, while he and his ghostwriter filled the first 262 pages, was that all the interviews would focus on the 33 pages held back to reflect on the 2011 World Cup.
Earlier in the book there is an admirably candid chapter about his horrible tribulations with colitis, which was diagnosed in 2005 and effectively meant a loss of bowel control, causing no end of uncomfortable moments. "There are very few more demeaning and belittling experiences for any man, let alone a Leicester and England rugby player, than when he shits himself," is on its own a sentence that might be expected to divert any interviewer, but neither that, nor the illustrious international career on which he has now called time – 71 caps, 11 as captain, and two World Cup finals, one of them unforgettably yielding a winner's medal – was uppermost in the minds of his media interrogators, whose questions instead, again and again yesterday, prompted from him the words "naïve" and "unacceptable".
Of course, he had hoped, before setting off for New Zealand, that those last 33 pages would contain more upbeat World Cup tales to go with those from 2003 and 2007. But, as he said with a sigh as the limousine taking him to yet another BBC studio glided along Park Lane, "I can't write fairy tales ... if I could, it would have a different ending."
Off the field of play, Moody is softly spoken, gentle and courteous, careful to hold doors open for his female publicists, far less Mad Dog than obliging Labrador. So it seemed almost brutal, like smacking a Lab, to sit on the back seat of the car with him, quizzing him on the multiple embarrassments of England's farcical World Cup campaign.
On the other hand, accountability starts with the captain, and so I read to him this week's remarks by his Welsh counterpart, Sam Warburton, who said of England's off-field misdemeanours in the infamous Altitude Bar and elsewhere: "Those antics might be seen at the end of a tour, but even then it would be pushing it. You'd never expect that after a first game. You'd think their priorities would be looking forward to the next match. Their behaviour surprised me because we knew the media would be on the lookout..."
Moody listened, politely. If he was boiling inside, it didn't show. "Everyone has their opinion," he said. "As players it's important to put our hands up to say that what happened was naïve. The fact that we allowed it to happen was one of the most disappointing things for me, after the amount we'd spoken. As captain I wish I'd stayed out and been able to take those guys away from the situation, or maybe that we'd had an alcohol ban for the tournament."
Would he recommend keeping England's perennially thirsty players off the booze in 2015? "That's for the coach and the captain to work out," he said. Presumably, though, the triumphant 2003 campaign was not exactly dry either? He smiled. "That's the difference between winning and losing. I will never gloss over my disappointment in the off-field naïvety, but had we beaten France and gone on to the semi-final and maybe the final, I'm sure the reaction would have been different. But we deal with reality, and the reality is that we lost in the quarter-final. I'm thoroughly disappointed by that still."
All the same, when he hears comments such as those by Warburton, does he consider them entirely justified, or unhelpfully pious? "Well, the perception of what happened ... is the perception. I can't change that. I do know how committed the players are. But clearly they have to win back some trust."
As we nosed past Buckingham Palace, it seemed like an apt moment to ask about his friend Mike Tindall, whose July wedding to Zara Phillips was attended by Moody and his wife. In Moody's absence, Tindall captained the World Cup team against Argentina, and he could hardly blame inexperience or boyish overexcitement for his late-night excesses. I sensed, reading the book, that Moody, torn between disapproval and loyalty, had struggled to find the right words to describe Tindall's behaviour. He settled for "a bit naïve" and conceded yesterday that it had been a hard passage to compose.
"I couldn't pretend that it hadn't occurred," he said. Indeed, but does not "a bit naïve" rather let his old mate off the hook? "Everyone's entitled to their opinion, and mine was exactly that. All the off-field stuff was naïve, and at times unacceptable." And, the $64,000 question, was it also responsible for England's largely feeble performances on the field? A sigh. "We have to be realistic, one very much impacted on the other. Without a doubt. To what extent we'll never know."
It must be hard for Moody to admit this, and even harder to come to terms with it, the more so as he has no more Six Nations, no more World Cups, to help his erring team-mates find the right balance between work and play. But he still has plenty of emotion invested in England's future. "The good news is that the vast majority of the squad will still be there in 2015," he said. "It's important that they take lessons from this campaign. The disappointments they've experienced, the issues, the heightened scrutiny that comes with playing for England... the players learnt a great deal about themselves and about what's required to perform on the biggest stage, and that can all help next time, just like Clive [Woodward] gleaned knowledge from 1999, and Graham Henry from 2007. And just like the New Zealand board kept faith with Graham, I think Johnno staying is the key to England becoming a better side. I hope he wants to continue, because I think it's imperative he does. It's only seven months since we won the Six Nations for the first time in seven years, but that's very quickly forgotten."
Whether Martin Johnson stays or goes as manager, there are those who think that the future of English rugby would be better entrusted to a kindergarten class than the mandarins of the Rugby Football Union, and Moody claimed that the turmoil within the RFU had been another factor in the players underperforming in New Zealand. "It probably did affect us to a degree, and it's important they get themselves sorted. They'll get on top of it, whether it's Clive coming back in or something else. I'm sure there's a position for him if he wants it, and I think that would be fantastic for the sport. But who, how, where, if, the important thing is that there's stability, because that leads to everything working well, to the team having confidence in the RFU and vice versa."
As Moody sees it, his own international retirement, at the age of 33, will help England build for 2015, and will moreover allow him to concentrate on his club career with Bath. It still seems incongruous, Moody playing for Bath after so long at Leicester (he can hardly wait to play at Welford Road, he said, having been injured for both of Bath's fixtures against the Tigers last season) but he has another two years on his contract, two years to do his best to ensure that his domestic rugby career ends on a more upbeat note than his career with England.
"The cloud of disappointment," he said, "will be there for some time. But it will never cloud the enjoyment I've had with England, from my first cap, my first tour, to World Cup finals, Grand Slams... it's been incredible. And the people I've met, the coaches I've worked with, like Clive and Andy Robinson." The limo purred to a halt, delivering him to his next interview. "The passion I've had for this game from the age of five still burns bright," he said, softly.
'Mad Dog: An Englishman' by Lewis Moody is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £20
Life & times
Name Lewis Walton Moody (born 12 June 1978 in Ascot).
Nicknames Crazy Horse, Mad Dog.
Education Studied business administration at De Montfort University, Leicester.
Family Married to an interior designer.They have two children.
Club Became youngest Leicester player to play a league game at 18 years and 94 days. Won seven Premiership titles and two Heineken Cups with Tigers. Now plays for Bath and has won a staggering 77.93 per cent of Premiership matches.
Country England debut against Canada in June 2001. Scored first try against United States in 2001. First English player to be sent off at Twickenham in 2005. Made captain in 2010 under Martin Johnson. Capped 71 times (the 16th England player to earn more than 70 caps), 11 as captain, scoring nine tries. Won the 2003 World Cup, the Grand Slam in 2003 and the Six Nations in 2011.
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