Expert Witness: June Tests, Week One

Date published: June 8 2016

With England, Ireland and Wales all embarking on significant June tours against the Rugby Championship giants, England skipper and World Cup winner Lewis Moody MBE, will be our resident Expert Witness during June to cast a critical eye upon the international proceedings.

The 2015 Rugby World Cup seems like eons away now, but for many observers of rugby, the abject failure of the home unions is one of the lasting memories of a wonderful tournament, dominated by the Southern Hemisphere sides.

The Big Questions

With England travelling to Australia, Ireland visiting South Africa and Wales touring New Zealand there’s an opportunity to change the perceptions of 2015, but Lewis Moody believes it’s going to take some serious performances to manage that.

“Firstly, June tours can be strange things. The Home Union boys have all had long and demanding seasons and have peaked for various play-offs and cup finals. To then peak again is always a big ask, even if player welfare has improved a little and they’re a little fresher these days,” said Moody.

“Secondly, history is against most, if not all, the sides. England have won three times in Australia but Wales and Ireland have never triumphed in New Zealand or South Africa respectively.

“Thirdly, each side is at a different point of evolution. England are emerging powerfully, so you’d say one win from three is par, but a series win is the aspiration. A clean sweep would send a shockwave down under of such proportions it would set off Tsunami alerts in the Pacific, and with luck it is possible.

“But Australia are a settled and balanced side; they played arguably the best rugby of the World Cup until the final and they’ve a defined game-plan and know how to execute. It will be evenly matched.

“New Zealand are rebuilding to a point, but when ‘rebuilding’ consists of bringing in players of the quality of Aaron Cruden and Sam Cane you can only admire the succession policy of the All Blacks. It is in their DNA to succeed, to play total rugby and every member of that side, and some yet to get to the squad, are world class talents,” admired Moody.

“Wales need all of their old stagers to put in the performance of their lives and for the All Blacks to have a complete nightmare of a day to gain a victory. It’s not impossible but it’s highly improbable,” he observed.

“Ireland have lost some massive characters and huge performers. Joe Schmidt has said this is a baptism of fire for some of his young charges and I’ll be very keen to see how newer players like Robbie Henshaw and Ultan Dillane fare against the physical Springbok challenge. Fortunately, Ireland only have one game at altitude and that does give them a hope, but that is all it is, hope over probability.”

Homeward Bound

One of the interesting subplots is England coach Eddie Jones’ return to his native Australia; made even more tasty by the fact he comes up against a man he knows so well, Michael Cheika.

“Eddie has a huge reputation as a rugby coaching intellect and he won’t want to go home to be greeted by a bloody nose,” quipped the former England skipper.

“Paradoxically, the Australian fans will expect an improved England side; they’ll want Eddie to succeed as long as it’s not against them!” laughed Moody.

“What is obvious to me is that the expectations within the squad have moved up a gear. Jones is a brutally focused man who expects absolute rugby excellence and he’ll provide a framework for exactly that. He is very good at getting the players on his wavelength.

"It was telling to hear Billy Vunipola after the France game mentioning that Eddie had taken the guys out on the town for a night, something that had not happened under the previous regime, and the players had gotten to really know each other off the pitch, something that’s crucial to team spirit.

“The key is knowing the line. You’re a professional athlete after all. If you want to see where the line is, have a look at the All Blacks. They’re self policing in terms of conduct and that cultural DNA I mentioned earlier means they stay exactly on the right side of the coach’s wrath!”

Five to Six

Eddie Jones is in the great position that he is now being forced to select a team rather than name a side. Joe Launchbury’s magnificent display against Wales looks sure to mean that the giant Wasp is retained with the magnificent Maro Itoje shunted across the pack to the blindside flank. Incredibly, this would mean that Chris Robshaw, England’s former skipper and outstanding player in the Six Nations, would bench.

“Brisbane will be hot and steamy, made for pacey players,” he observed.

“Chris is a proven and integral part of the squad and that won’t change. But from the minute I saw Maro, I saw him as an athletic six, a Tom Croft with more beef,” he laughed.

“George Kruis, is a man I noted as a leader from his very first squad session when he arrived at Pennyhill at 8am and had started bossing the lineout calls by 10am. I fully expect him to resume in the ‘engine room’ with Courtney Lawes benching to add huge impact.

“If Itoje plays at six, you’ve got one of the most physically formidable back rows England have ever fielded against quite a lightweight Aussie combination. Maro will compete with the very best jacklers which will pressure the Wallaby breakdown experts and for the last quarter, there are players like Jack Clifford, Lawes and Robshaw to add real impact to proceedings.

“The most attractive thing however, is the lineout options they have. I was talking to Victor Matfield about a year ago and he, a professor of lineouts, pointed out England only had two primary line out options and had no attacking options from the restart.

"With this new look side they have three or four, with Itoje very good at beating players from extending lineouts ‘one on one’. This will allow England to throw long, quick ball off the top of the back, which opens up the midfield for our runners, all of whom now attack space rather than contact.

“It’s a mouthwatering development in our team and something that’s been lacking for quite a few seasons,” said Moody.

Against the Odds

With the Home Unions having a pretty dismal record in the June series, as noted previously, the odds are stacked hugely against sides playing the Southern Hemisphere’s ‘Big Three’. Even if pushed, Moody is cautious against predicting upsets.

“England may suffer in the heat, and whilst Eddie has been playing down the chances in the first Test I believe that England’s consistency stands them in good stead.

"Coming in on the back of a great performance versus Wales I think it’s a tough game to call, but I’ll say England by a score.

“The others, well Wales will throw everything at New Zealand, keep it tight for 50 mins but then I expect the All Blacks to pull away and win by 15 to 20.

“Ireland’s visit to Cape Town will be savage.

"I don’t expect anything from them in terms of result but the key measure will be how the young Irish team combat the sheer brutality of the Springboks.

"South Africa will win comfortably but Ireland need to show dog and character, and need to learn from what will be a very testing experience.”

We thank Lewis for sparing his time yet again and he will return to review the first weekend's action on Expert Witness next week.

Lewis Moody MBE, a tearaway flanker, played 71 times for England and appeared in (3) tests for the British and Irish Lions.  The last England captain to win a test in Australia in 2010, 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 lineout that led to ‘that drop goal’.

He now spends his free time promoting his children’s charity, which raises funds worldwide for children suffering from brain tumours.

by James While