The Saturday Interview: Lewis Moody

Lewis Moody returns to England's side against Wales today with only half a game - and another trip to the sin-bin - behind him since being sent off against Samoa in November. He tells Chris Hewett why he is not worried
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The Independent Online

Lewis Moody works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. Banned from the playing fields of England for nine long weeks following his pugilistic excesses against the Samoans at Twickenham last November, the Lions flanker took the interesting decision to head for the frozen wastes of Finland for a few days' spiritual nourishment at a training camp inhabited almost exclusively by wrestlers polishing their one-on-one combat techniques. And since his return? Why, he has been seeking advice on anger management from that well-known pacifist philosopher and darling of a dozen different disciplinary panels, Daniel Grewcock. You know it makes sense.

So how was Finland, pray? "Cold," replied Moody, helpfully. And Grewcock? Is he really the best man to dispense wisdom on the subject of temper control? "It's a matter of preparing myself for the flak that's coming my way," he said. "Yes, I've spoken to Danny. He's been through a fair bit himself down the years. He knows the score."

Grewcock does indeed know the score. Until Moody crimson-misted himself off the pitch by aiming a fusillade of punches at the extravagantly coiffured Alesana Tuilagi - a Leicester club-mate, oddly enough - the second-row enforcer from Bath could count himself among the unholy trinity of the red rose game. Only he and his fellow lock, Simon Shaw of Wasps, had succeeded in following the trail blazed in 1975 by the rough-and-ready Gloucester prop and dedicated controversialist Mike Burton, the first Englishman to be sent from the field in an international. Burton, Grewcock and Shaw were all dismissed during the course of dispiriting defeats on foreign soil. Moody was different, as ever. When he was dispatched by the South African referee, Mark Lawrence, he and his countrymen were 40 points up at home, with a minute left on the clock.

Burton showed little remorse following his little brouhaha in Brisbane all those years ago; in his opinion - not entirely misplaced, it must be said - he was defending his country's honour in the face of some serious Australian brutality. Grewcock, dismissed for toe-poking the All Black hooker Anton Oliver on the top of the head at a collapsed scrum in Dunedin during the "Tour from Hell" in 1998, was a paragon of inscrutability throughout the episode and has stayed that way ever since. Shaw, on the other hand, pleaded not guilty to stamping after receiving the red card treatment in Auckland in 2004 and duly escaped punishment, albeit on a technicality.

Moody is not the inscrutable type, and while he might reasonably have used the Burton Declaration as a major plank of his defence, he did not have the temerity to claim innocence. Within minutes of the incident, he was so full of remorse and self-loathing that the Samaritans were in danger of receiving a first-ever phone call from a man sitting in an ice bath. He genuinely felt terrible about the whole thing, and accepted his long ban - his second of the season - without a murmur.

"I played this game for 10 years without having a disciplinary problem," he said this week, shortly after being recalled, virtually sight unseen, to the England side for today's Six Nations contest with Wales. "Where has all this come from, so suddenly? I've looked for the reasons, but I'm not sure I've put my finger on anything.

"I'm a passionate player, and it seems the passion and the emotion simply boiled over in a manner I didn't expect. I've thought about it a lot, as you might have expected, but I can't change the way I play. I'm a flanker, and flankers are there to get in the way and make a nuisance of themselves. It's a matter of getting the balance right, of finding a way of being calm and hyped up at the same time. It's also a matter of putting the events of this season behind me."

No sooner had Moody set foot on the field in his comeback for Leicester last weekend than he was off it again, sent to the sin-bin for a clumsy high-ball challenge. Frustrating?

"Yes, but it was a technical offence," he responded. All the same, it has been one thing after another. Might he find himself a marked man against Wales, an easy target for a couple of wind-up merchants in red shirts? "I'd like to think not, but I'll accept whatever niggle there might be and get on with it. I suppose there might be an element of being watched very closely by the officials. I'll have to accept that, too."

The moment Andy Robinson, the England coach, received details of the length of Moody's post-Samoa suspension, he took his pen from his pocket and wrote the flanker's name at No 7 on his team sheet for this afternoon's match. It was a measure of his confidence in the Ascot-born player's exuberant abilities. Robinson once described him as "a given" - a term he has not been heard to use in connection with anyone else. Not Jonny Wilkinson, not Jason Robinson, not Charlie Hodgson. Not even Martin Corry, and Corry is his captain.

There is no great mystery surrounding Robinson's depth of attachment. The coach recognises something of his old tearaway self in Moody, although Robinson eventually developed an open-side style very different to that currently associated with the 27-year-old Tiger - a style that both reflected his less generous physical dimensions and utilised them to maximum effect. By contrast, Moody could never be included among the England's so-called "pocket battleship" flankers. He is 6ft 4in, 16st 7lb and supremely athletic. A decade ago, England switched the similarly formidable Ben Clarke of Bath to the breakaway position because they felt size mattered, but Clarke was not a natural in the role. To Moody, it comes as naturally as breathing.

He has 34 caps now, accumulated since the first of two "shadow" Tests against Canada in 2001, while the bulk of the senior England hands were touring Australia with the Lions. It is a mark of the way international rugby has mushroomed since the game was declared open in 1995; Peter Winterbottom, perhaps the most complete red rose breakaway of the post-war era and the player Moody most obviously resembles, took the best part of a decade to reach that tally. Winterbottom did not have Moody's eye for the line, either. The celebrated Yorkshireman retired 13 years ago with three tries to his name. His successor has eight, with power to add.

"It's weird to think of it, but yes, I suppose I should be considered a senior England player nowadays," Moody agreed. "When people talk about senior players, I still think of someone like Martin Johnson. But the people who were around when I first started with Leicester have gradually petered out, leaving blokes like me to carry the responsibility that comes with age and experience. Mind you, even when Johno was captain and was meant to be setting the example, we could always bank on him to give away the first penalty of a game." Moody has learnt well, clearly.

Not that he sees himself as a high risk on the penalty front. "During the autumn internationals, I was penalised twice," he pointed out. "Well, maybe three times. I don't believe I had a bad autumn in that respect, whatever the figure. When you look at the Wallaby flankers" - George Smith and Phil Waugh, annoying little beggars both - "they're synonymous with putting their hands and bodies where they don't belong and being whistled for it, but no one seems to make much of a fuss about them."

Just as he did when Australia visited Twickenham in the autumn, Moody will spend this afternoon peering down on his opposite number. Martyn Williams, the highly skilled Cardiff Blues flanker, was one of those contesting the Lions Test berth in New Zealand last year, and while Moody edged ahead of him to win selection for the big matches in Wellington and Auckland, he expects nothing less than an extreme examination of his footballing intelligence and and competitive resolve this afternoon.

"Martyn is a fantastic player," he said, unhesitatingly. "When I was picked in front of him for the last two Tests against the All Blacks, I felt sorry for him because I honestly felt he deserved better. I'd have liked to have played in the same back row, because we'd have worked well together. He's a terrific link man who gives people a platform to play off. I rate him very highly."

This is a major occasion for Moody in all respects. His every move will be scrutinised, both by those who have an issue with his discipline and those who recognise that the Premiership has produced two brilliant young open-side rivals over the last couple of seasons: Magnus Lund, of Sale, who plays the game like Moody, and Tom Rees, of Wasps, who has more than a touch of the Williams about him. Lund is in the wider squad for this tournament; Rees would have been had his club granted him just a little more time in public view. One or both of them could come on strong over the next 12 months and press for a place in the party for the 2007 World Cup. Moody already has a winner's medal and would very much like a shot at another one. At this juncture, he is a virtual certainty to travel. Things change, though. He cannot afford a bad patch.

Is he nervous at the prospect of an immediate return to Test rugby with less than 40 minutes game time in the tank?

"Nervous? More anxious, I'd say. It's been a fractured season and it pains me, because you're given only so many seasons at this level and you can't get the lost ones back. I want to make the most of every opportunity, so it's a matter of getting myself organised. Organised brain, organised life - that's what they tell me at Leicester. I'm a pretty chaotic sort when you come down to it, so I don't find organisation easy. I'm doing my best, though."

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