“It’s not about replicating the performance, it’s about delivering the performance required to replicate the result.”
Lewis Moody is confident when talking about England’s opportunity to win a second World Cup this Saturday. Despite the optimism, however, he’s keen to stress that it’s not as simple as doing what they did against New Zealand in the semi-final all over again, regardless of how good it was.
And it was that good. The 19-7 defeat of the winners of the last two World Cups was almost the complete performance, already entering conversations as potentially one of their greatest ever. Taking on the huge, physically dominant Springboks will necessitate an altered approach.
“South Africa will require a very different performance,” says Moody. “There’s no way South Africa are going to allow England the speed of ball that New Zealand did, there’s no way they’re going to give up the same number of turnovers, or allow England to attack in the same way.”
England go into their fourth World Cup final as favourites, just as Moody did in 2003 in Australia when they faced the hosts. That side had spent the five years previous building to that exact moment. There had been Six Nations titles, but Grand Slam failures, until everything came together the spring before the World Cup later that year.
“Disappointment can propel you forward,” says Moody. “Before we won the Grand Slam in 2003 we lost a few Grand Slam games in the years building up to it and it galvanises you. Resilience is achieved through experiences, and that looks a bit like what’s happened to this England team.”
It’s difficult to argue otherwise. Having won a Grand Slam and gone 18 matches unbeaten in the early part of Eddie Jones’ tenure, things took a dive for England, culminating in a fifth place finish in last year’s Six Nations.
I haven't seen a game that good, or a performance that good, and it happened to be against what's been the best rugby team in the last 10 years.
The Australian’s selection, tactics, abrasive attitude and coaching methods were all called into question and there was a very real danger of England flopping at two World Cup tournaments in a row, given the failure to get out the pool stages when they played the role of hosts in 2015. All of that now seems a very long time ago.
From the moment Jones was hired, he repeatedly said: “Judge me on the World Cup”. It’s where he excels.
Saturday will be his third World Cup final. He was head coach of Australia when they lost to England in 2003 and part of the coaching setup when South Africa won four years later. He also masterminded Japan’s win over the Springboks in 2015, arguably the biggest upset rugby has ever seen.
Captain of the Springbok team that won under Jones in 2007 was hooker John Smit. Speaking about his former coach, the 111-cap man is full of praise.
“Eddie’s a smart coach and an unbelievably clever rugby man. He's also smarter with what he does in the media and I think he just understands people and the dynamics.
“In Eddie’s first year he went unbeaten for that amazing run and he was hailed as the greatest thing that's ever happened in England. A year later he was struggling to win in the Six Nations and every couch expert wanted his head on a plate, but now he’s back.”
The England of 2019 is prepared, calm, confident and, based on last weekend, capable of playing extraordinary rugby that not even the best in the world could live with. As with 2003, everything required to be successful is in place already.
Moody says: “We had one training session the week before that final, which is very different to what you’re normally used to, because we knew what we needed to do. From a player’s point of view you just wanted to do what’s right for you personally.”
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Flanker Moody ended up winning 71 caps for England. When Sir Clive Woodward’s meticulous, dominant England won the World Cup in 2003 he was a 25-year-old, supporting a group of players that were peaking at just the right time. The likes of Martin Johnson, Neil Back, Richard Hill and Jason Leonard all retired soon after. There was never any thought put into what would happen afterwards, something Moody describes as “the wheels coming off”.
As a result, when Moody reached the final again in 2007, this time in France against the same opponents England will face on Saturday, it couldn’t have been more different.
Having been battered 36-0 by South Africa in the pool stages, they faced them again in the final, but strangely Moody is as proud of that campaign as the one previously.
“We were diabolical in 2007, in the buildup and in the tournament itself. We changed coach six months before, selection and performance were inconsistent. We weren’t number one in the world, we weren’t expected to get through the pool stage, we weren’t expected to make the quarter final, let alone the final.
“We had a player meeting mid-tournament and turned things around. In terms of what a group of players can achieve together, it was totally different – 2003 was well planned, managed for that moment, whereas 2007 was making it up as you go along. It was a totally unique experience but one that I look back on with fond memories because we totally and utterly overachieved under the circumstances.”
If England win on Saturday, it won’t be an overachievement. Given what they have produced it is bordering on the expected. The bulk of the squad is young enough to still be there in four – maybe eight – years time and that All Blacks win was a statement sent out to the rugby world.
“I haven't seen a game that good, or a performance that good, and it happened to be against what's been the best rugby team in the last 10 years,” says Smit. “New Zealand, after losing to South Africa three times in around 2009, reinvented themselves and they've been ruling the world for over a decade, if not more.
All the emotion, euphoria, desolation, adrenaline, it’s all impossible to replace.
“We actually don’t know if they did or didn't rock up because they never had a chance from the first minute, so for South Africa fans it's a concern. I probably understand more than most South Africans as that is what was Saracens was built around, that kind of complete performance, so for me it was like watching Saracens at the absolute best. The spine of that [England] team, the big decisions and the work rate of that team, it’s going to be hard to stop.”
In the week leading up to the 2003 and 2007 finals, Moody was “massively nervous”, but he was for most games in his career. For the players taking the field in the biggest game of their lives, it’s a matter of appreciating that fact, and the magnitude of the occasion, while applying all the preparation, habits and methods that they would for any other game.
“Talking about those experiences and reminiscing about the occasion brings it all back and reminds you just how joyous getting into that position was,” Moody describes.
Now very much a fan, the hope for Moody is that this group of players will get to do the same as he’s doing at the moment years from now. For him, there is no longer a need for keeping notes by the bedside table, going over scenarios and line-out calls, or trying to stay distracted the morning of the game. This Saturday he’ll be watching the game with his children and some friends at home.
“I used to hate watching games because I still wanted to be doing it. All the emotion, euphoria, desolation, adrenaline, it’s all impossible to replace. Being around games, especially at Twickenham, I used to find it very hard. I’m comfortable now, knowing I’m not capable of doing what they do. I can’t explain the feeling, but the buildup to this game has been very strange. That said, just before I’ll probably be even more nervous than when I played.”
He won’t be the only one.
Lewis Moody was speaking on behalf of Land Rover, Official Worldwide Partner of Rugby World Cup 2019. With over 20 years of heritage supporting rugby at all levels, Land Rover is celebrating what makes rugby, rugby. #LandRoverRugby
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