When this year’s tournament opened, some big questions sat over each of the big teams. Did Wales have enough strength in depth? Could Ireland continue their winning streak? Were England the real deal? Where was Scotland‘s style going to take them, and could Italy and France turn around their disjointed international performances?
As we approach the last weekend, Moody believes we’ve found a lot of the answers and that, at the top of the tree, Warren Gatland’s keen rugby intellect has paid dividends for his team.
“A streak of some 13 winning games doesn’t happen by accident,” smiled Moody.
“Wales have found both immense resilience in the way they play, together with a much deeper pool of talent that many believed they had.
“It’s the sort of resilience that big leaders, such as Alun Wyn Jones, Jonathan Davies and Justin Tipuric bring with hundreds of caps and a number of Lions Test wins. That gives you the deep-seated confidence that any side is beatable and it also means you know precisely what you have to do to beat the best.
“The whole Warrenball thing must now be consigned to the scrap heap. Yes, Wales can match most teams, especially at home, in contact. But outside in the backs, few teams have the running ability that Josh Adams, Davies, George North and Liam Williams (sadly injured for the last weekend) provide.
“Their back-row riches are incredibly impressive considering Aaron Shingler and Taulupe Faletau haven’t even started this year and for all the chat about line-outs, Wales have found a spirit that’s similar to England in the early 2000s.
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Moody continued: “I have to take my hat off in admiration to Warren Gatland. He is a master of player and confidence management and he makes people believe through detailed preparation and an incredible ability to pinpoint winning strategy. The feedback I get from the Welsh lads is they have fun when with Wales; that’s a priceless commodity and Warren’s old school in that he’ll let the players let their hair down a little more than perhaps other coaches would.
“Paradoxically, whilst Wales have found and used new players to add value, Ireland’s season has been a little more frustrating. They’ve been solid and dependable but you’ve always felt they’ve been one gear away from their very best.
“Ireland’s balance hasn’t looked quite right yet and their injury profile has probably suggested they’ve less of an ability to go deep into their resources than Wales have.
“This is also compounded by a few players not being at their very sharpish; Sean O’Brien is a long way off his world class best and the back-row, until Jack Conan came on last weekend against France, seemed to lack a little go forward. The midfield looks a little predictable and Bundee Aki must do more to bring the talented runners in the back three (and Garry Ringrose outside him) into the game.
“Cardiff will be bursting on Saturday – with pride, passion and belief. Whilst Ireland are always perennial party-poopers, Wales at home means resilience, noise, power and a 10-point home advantage. It’ll be a game of massive collisions on the gainline, aerial bombardment and one settled upon the finest margins. By saying that for my money it’s a Welsh win all the way, and I suspect by 10 points or more,” he concluded.
The top of the mountain
“As far as England are concerned, despite the Welsh slip up, I’ve yet to see a side that has quite the power and pace that these lads have. Conor O’Shea remarked on Saturday that when playing the Rose, it’s the mountain top of international rugby right now and no side has challenged his as much as England did in terms of the physical.
“In short, they’re hugely destructive, but for whatever reason struggle to think or adapt when that physicality is neutered.
“Is Eddie’s voice too loud? Well perhaps there’s something in this – he needs to sit back and let the players ‘own the game’. Yes, by all means have detailed plans but also have the mental apparatus to react and vary these when the time is right.
“We touched upon Wales and Ireland’s squad depth, but England have riches here that any nation would be jealous of. We have three man cover in virtually every position on the pitch (except for scrum-half) and still, players like Brad Shields and Joe Cokanasiga throw spanners into Eddie’s matchday selection with big performances like those shown in Italy.
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“Eddie’s real challenge now is to find out who is best and in which very specific position. My old mate ‘The Chief’ (Manu Tuilagi) was good at 12 earlier on this year, but suddenly went up two gears when switched back to his usual berth at outside centre. I like the creativity Slade brings, and I wonder if we need to see those two swapped positionally to maximise their impact?” question the Tiger.
“In the back-row, Wilson and Shields at six, Curry and Underhill and seven and Billy or Nathan Hughes at eight means we’ve men for all seasons. Sadly, the back-row many want to see (including Eddie), that with Curry and Underhill both flanking Vunipola, has yet to feature due to injury, but it’s one that reminds me of the balance of Hill and Back – pace, handling and contact in abundance.
“Scotland will come to Twickenham full of tricks and running. To consider they’ve about the same rugby resource as Italy (two professional sides) says it all, when they consistently challenge the big boys. They’re playing some sumptuous fast rugby, but they will realise that to win big matches, they need to earn the right to run, and that means putting in some hard yards in contact.
“Just as England can’t rely on their plan A kicking game, neither can Scotland afford to deconstruct from ball one. Pragmatism must underpin innovation – if they can find that balance they’ll be dangerous. However, with England’s home form as it is, I expect a home win in a very high scoring match and I hope it’s the celebration of running rugby that both sides could produce.
Respecting all teams
“Lastly, France have yet again defined every cliché written about them. Watching 15 talented players who win European trophies every year not having a clue about team tactics and playing as 15 individuals infuriates everyone as they are so much better than that.
“This tactical disconnect can only mean there’s a coaching and leadership issue. The word is that Brunel is taking a back seat over the next few games with my old foe Julien Bonnaire preparing the side. He has connectivity to the modern game and understands what test rugby is all about, so perhaps that might just give them a spark of confidence?
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“With Italy regressing, it makes me wonder whether the old chestnut of promotion and relegation should now be revisited. It seems to me that the best respect you could give Italy, Georgia, Spain and co. is to make them compete and compete hard. Give them something to play for and the standard will improve as they focus on winning for a reason, not winning for a hope.
“I realise there’s all sorts of financial models to discuss here, but the simple thinking is bring in more competition at the foot of the table and the lower teams will improve rather than just being whipping boys.
“I can’t see anything other than a French win, but I do hope Italy give us something to cling on to, a real performance of note.”
We thank Lewis for his time and Expert Witness will return later in the year for one of the biggest seasons of Test rugby.
Lewis Moody MBE, a tearaway flanker, played 71 times for England and appeared in three Tests for the British and Irish Lions. He was a key member of the England’s World Cup winning side in 2003 and skippered England in the 2011 RWC. He will forever be remembered for winning the line-out that led to ‘that drop goal’.
Moody now inspires the next generation of young rugby players through his Mad Dog Sport 6th form rugby programmes. Together with education, Mad Dog Sport focuses on a person’s continued individual development using rugby as the foundation.