'The Saracens debacle and fallout, you can see it in the performances that it has clearly impacted'
Lewis Moody was knocking around south-west London on Saturday just like old times. There in the shadows of Twickenham, the great Test rugby cathedral he graced on so many occasions during a decade-long, World Cup-winning career, he dared to put the boots on one more time.
The England versus Ireland legends game at the Stoop is now a staple of the spring calendar, an eve-of-Six-Nations-Test shindig where old friendships are renewed and a swag of cash is raised for charity. Sweet.
Yet it wasn’t without its anxiety. Just four months shy of his 42nd birthday, Moody wasn’t at all sure how his body might stand up to the challenge of giving it socks. “It has probably been four years since I put the boots on in a contact match and actually attempted to make a tackle. I’m hoping it will be like riding a bike,” he quipped to RugbyPass.
“But this is awesome. It’s a chance to catch up with English lads like Ben Cohen, to rekindle some Irish friendships like Shane Byrne and Gordon D’Arcy and various different characters you got to play with on Lions trips. It makes it even more special. You just hope that the level of competition can be at a level that is acceptable to all.”
As regards the main event, the Sunday service across the road at a jam-packed rugby HQ, Moody isn’t immune to the dynamics surrounding this meeting of Eddie Jones’ England and Andy Farrell’s Ireland, a contest where the visitors will arrive trying to clinch silverware.
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The ex-Leicester flanker was in Andy Robinson’s side in 2006 when the Irish nicked the Triple Crown with a stunning late try in the corner. More interestingly, he was part of the group that attempted to pick up the pieces in the Six Nations following the 2007 World Cup final, an exercise that Jones’ current crew are currently struggling to negotiate.
Twelve years ago, England were ransacked at home by Wales in their first game back post-RWC and then struggled to pip Italy over in Rome, the sort of indifferent performances that mirror the current February carry-on where the recent RWC finalists have lost to France and only narrowly squeezed past Scotland.
However, whereas Moody puts that difficult 2008 campaign down simply to England not being good enough, an impression endorsed by the post-tournament decision to jettison boss Brian Ashton, he feels there is something more sinister at play with Jones and co struggling to pick up the thread of their Japanese jamboree.
Looking forward to a run around with some old pals tonight for 2 great causes.@EnglandLegends v @IrishLegends tonight 1800 @Harlequins with @miketindall13 @TomMay1 @RugbyBenCohen @AndyGomarsall @JasonLeonard114 @LewisMoody7 @nick_easter and more @Sportingclass #legends2020 pic.twitter.com/X9t3i1wmzz
— Lewis Moody (@LewisMoody7) February 22, 2020
“It was difficult for us because in 2007, reaching that final was a World Cup moment in itself because we had been so flipping bad during the whole tournament and didn’t look like getting out of the group at one stage. I am not saying it wasn’t disappointing, but this England side, having beaten New Zealand, believed that the World Cup was theirs for the taking so it would have seriously impacted them much harder.
“That being said once the tournament is done, it’s done and you move on and they have all come back into their club environments to different levels of success. I would say for this England team at the minute, I know they have said they have addressed the elephant in the room but all the issues with the Saracens debacle and fallout, you can see it in the performances that it has clearly impacted on some of the players.
“That has held them back in the performance because it was not where would have expected, certainly against France. It was off the pace. Against Scotland, in the most miserable conditions, they did what they had to which was knuckle out a close score victory and you never get an easy win in Scotland as an England team. For me, they did what they could there.
“Sunday is probably the first real test of where England actually are. If we go back to last Six Nations and the performance they put in over Ireland in that first game which no one expected, this is a big deciding game to understand where England are at.
“Whether the World Cup has affected them and whether the Saracens debacle and fallout really is impacting the psychology of players and actually are England as good as we thought. There is no doubt there is some phenomenal talent in this England side but they are not quite clicking.”
Ask Moody if he ever experienced similar club-based dressing room tensions at international level when he played and he can’t quite say for sure. “That’s a good question… not that I can’t recall. That’s not to say it didn’t happen. That’s just my memory isn’t good enough.
“I mean we had always tensions there between Wasps and Leicester during those early to mid-2000s because those sides saw themselves as the dominant Premiership team and there was always a sort of certain element of conflict, but nothing like what players are having to deal with here.
“It was purely about on-field performances week in week out and there were some characters but never the sense of impending doom around whether the players would have a job. Whether players would be thrown under the bus a little bit and get embroiled in the whole financial scenario. Whether there is more to come out. Whether the club they are playing for will actually be in existence.
“Will they get picked for England if they play in the championship? Would another club pick them if they don’t want to stay? There are so many questions probably going through players’ minds it must be a really challenging time for them. They were always going to say it hasn’t impacted them but I feel it probably has.”
"Ireland picked Robbie Henshaw out of position at fullback in this very fixture last year and paid the price. I hope I’m wrong but England might just be making exactly the same mistake."
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 22, 2020
Anti Saracens sentiment isn’t the only bump in England’s road either. For the life of him, Moody just can’t understand what Jones is up to playing flanker Tom Curry in the No8 role. Moody himself tried this switch on a number of occasions at club level and hated it, so imagine what Curry might possibly be feeling having to similarly improvise in a position he hasn’t looked comfortable in.
“I imagine Eddie’s philosophy about the back row – or any of the positions – is about having the best players on the pitch. For me, Tom is a world-class flanker and No8 is a specialist position and I don’t know how much time he has had playing there prior to this.
“It’s not an easy job to switch from flanker to No8. I know, I tried it on a couple of occasions and the art of controlling the ball at the base as the scrum is moving forwards and sideways and trying to keep it away from the opposition nine and get it into the perfect position for your own scrum-half all those things take years of practice.
Is the experiment coming to Sale any time soon?https://t.co/RUpECAksdE
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 5, 2020
“There was a real trepidation because I knew how challenging it was. You had to put some time in practising behind the scrum, work with the nine. But you can practice it as much as you like… to be thrown into a game is a vastly different experience.
“Tom is a very skilful player and a tenacious character. He is doing okay but for me let Tom do what he is good at, that is being a world-class flanker and bring in someone that does the No8 role week in week out and is attuned to it. There is plenty around the league that could do that,” said Moody, a Land Rover ambassador who added he would never have taken this positional switch risk himself as a Test player.
“God no, I wouldn’t have done it at international level. I would have point blank refused because it would have impeded the team’s performance. I tried it at club level and I don’t feel like I did it justice. It would never have worked unless there was no other choice in the coach’s mind… I would always have a specialist there from just understanding how difficult it is to play No8 when you haven’t done it consistently week in week out.”
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) February 21, 2020
There is also the knock-on effect of Curry’s move leaving the No6 shirt to fill. “Playing Courtney (Lawes) at six? For me, he is a world-class second row. Why play him in the back row when he isn’t going to deliver as a Lewis Ludlam or someone else?”
It’s a state of flux that has Moody veering towards Ireland securing the 2020 bragging rights and leaving Farrell senior putting one over his England captain son Owen. “It’s a fascinating confrontation in terms of how they get on with it and how one will try to unpick the other’s defence and attack.”
Irish boss Andy was with Moody as an English player at the aforementioned 2007 World Cup and what he saw there left him unsurprised the ex-league star has since gone a long way in a union tracksuit. “I certainly saw him as a world-class leader,” he ventured. “He wasn’t at his playing pinnacle when he was with us in ’07 but he was still a bloody good player, a phenomenal leader who was just incredible to have in the squad.
“He just set such a good example from what he said when we were in huddles and why he said it. He didn’t speak for the sake of it. There was always a purpose and people always listened when he spoke. The intensity with which he trained whether in the gym or in the training field, he just had a sort of presence that, a bit like Martin Johnson, made you want to be around him. He made you want to be a better player.
“It was no surprise to me at all he is now a head coach. When he was with England under Stuart Lancaster I always felt he probably ran the show which was why there was a bit of conflict in that 2015 World Cup with Stuart.
“I don’t know, but having watched sessions Andy was very much the dominant character taking them and the players react to him. He has got a brilliant brain, he has just got a phenomenal presence that you want to be around as players when you know he has performed to such high levels. It gives him added respect and authority.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 22, 2020
“Ireland are in a better place from a performance point of view, although that Scotland game could quite easily have gone the other way. First games in the Six Nations are always a challenge when you bring teams together.
“I’d like to think at home England are going to have too much firepower and too much motivation off the back of the World Cup and a couple of tough games, but Ireland probably have the edge at the minute. They come into this game slightly more confident and are slightly the favourites.”
* Lewis Moody is a Land Rover ambassador. Land Rover has been helping rugby fans discover the sport for over twenty years. Visit LandRover.co.uk
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