Lewis Moody insists England’s players can take inspiration from the 2003 Rugby World Cup-winning squad as the Red Rose prepare to face the mighty All Blacks this year on the long pilgrimage towards lifting a second Webb Ellis Cup.
England will face the superpowers of the Southern Hemisphere in the autumn, including reigning world champions New Zealand, for a tantalising first tussle between the two nations since November 2014.
The fact the world’s two best Test nations haven’t crossed swords in so long is puzzling, but Moody feels facing Steve Hansen’s fearsome side in the run-up to the World Cup is paramount as Eddie Jones plots victory in Japan 2019.
England clash with the All Blacks on the hallowed Twickenham turf on November 10, the fixture sandwiched between duels with South Africa a week earlier and Australia seven days later.
It’s a path Moody trod with England in the 2002 Autumn Internationals, when the 71-times capped flanker scored a try in a thrilling 31-28 opening win over the All Blacks, while a clean sweep was completed as England edged the Wallabies 32-31 before slaughtering the Springboks 53-3.
England even had the audacity to repeat the feat away from the comfortable surroundings of home, claiming a 15-13 win over New Zealand in Wellington and a 25-14 triumph over Australia the following summer, four months ahead of their joyous World Cup win.
And Moody says the autumn is crucial to England and Jones gauging how likely their chances of lifting the trophy in the Land of the Rising Sun are.
“When you’re building up to a competition you want to test yourself against the best and know where you stand,” Moody told Sport360, speaking ahead of his role as an HSBC ambassador at the Rugby Festival Dubai last weekend, held jointly by local sides Dubai Exiles and Dubai Hurricanes at The Sevens.
“You want to know if you can beat them. That’s what we did in 2003, played them all at home in the autumn and toured and played them away (the following summer), and won all those matches.
“It put us in the most incredible frame of mind going into that World Cup, knowing we’d beaten every world class side out there that was going to face us. We knew we could make a final and that’s what Eddie’s side need to do going into 2019.
“Having New Zealand in that autumn series next year prior to going out will be key to finding out where they are.
“New Zealand aren’t the team they used to be. They’re still a pretty good outfit, there’s no doubting that, but they are transitioning and I think it’ll be an interesting time to play them.”
Before all that, there is of course the small matter of the Six Nations to defend. The showpiece tournament of Northern Hemisphere rugby begins this weekend, with England going in as two-time defending champions and searching for a second Grand Slam in three years.
Moody, a man who toured New Zealand with the British & Irish Lions in 2005, believes the Red Rose rightly go in as favourites to what will be one of the most competitive tournaments in recent years.
The former Leicester Tigers stalwart said: “Ireland, with the form of their clubs in the Champions Cup, will be buoyed having played the French and English clubs and done a really good job.
“Scotland have shown promise and have a competitive side now, while you can never write off the Welsh, so 100 per cent, it could be the most competitive tournament in ages.
“You want a competitive tournament, you don’t want to see sides trounced by 40 or 50 points. There’s no enjoyment there for the players or the spectators. I’m really looking forward to it. The last few years has been really great competition and some of the players on show this year are mind-blowing.”
The tournament is seen a timeless sporting classic, having been contested in some shape or form for well over 100 years, the early incarnate Home Nations first being played in 1883.
Not many changes have been made to a hugely popular event over the ensuing years, Italy’s entry in 2000 seeing the Six Nations established in its current guise.
Promotion and relegation has been tabled in recent years with the rise of Georgia as a competitive nation, and even as a traditionalist, it is something Moody would like to see explored further.
“If there’s any disappointment over the last two decades in the Six Nations it’s that Italy perhaps haven’t made the strides we thought they were going to,” said Moody.
“There’s the call for sides like Georgia who are pushing for inclusion, to be promoted, which I think is a great concept. Relegation and promotion.”
Up first for England on Saturday are the plucky but porous Italians in Rome. An easy start for the champions, perhaps, but it gets tougher afterwards. England have just two home fixtures, against Wales and Ireland, although Joe Schmidt’s side visit London on the final day, for what will be billed as a potential title decider.
“I think it’s tricky having them (Italy) up first,” said Moody of Saturday’s opener.
“If you get a big win it lulls you into a false sense of security, and if you don’t everyone’s on a bit of a downer and will write you off and say England aren’t at the races.
“You’ve got nothing to gain by playing them in the first game unless you smash them by 60 points, and even then you don’t get a clear sense of where you are.
“It’s the year when we only have two games at home so it makes it difficult to go and chase the Grand Slam. The challenging games will be Ireland at home and France away, it’s as simple as that for me.
“Having said that you know the Welsh will be a handful, playing the Scots away in Murrayfield is a horrible place to play and their fans, a partisan crowd, will create a cauldron of an atmosphere and try and make it a horrible place for England to get a result.”
Something Moody is looking forward to seeing – besides England hopefully winning a record third Six Nations title in a row – is an exciting crop of emerging England youngsters taking their chance to shine.
Sam Simmonds (23), Sam Underhill, Lewis Boyce, Harry Mallinder (all 21), Zack Mercer (20), Nick Isiekwe (19) and Marcus Smith (18) are all in Jones’ squad, while injured Tom Curry (19) excites Moody.
And he has singled out Exeter Chiefs Number 8 Simmonds as someone who can really make a name for himself this Six Nations.
“Sam Simmonds, I imagine they’ll start him at No8 with the injuries they have. He offers something different,” said Moody, who as a back-rower himself, is thrilled with England’s options in the loose forwards.
“He’s not the ball carrier Nathan Hughes or Billy Vunipola is, but he’s such an explosive, athletic individual. Offloads, side-step, he’s a back playing in the back row so I’m genuinely excited to see him.
“Also, Sam Underhill. He played one or two games last year but generally didn’t make an impact, as he had a concussion early on. Id’ really like to see him step it up into the Six Nations and have an exciting tournament.
“I can’t think they’d put Marcus Smith anywhere near the starting line-up yet but there’s a lot of really exciting guys in this group.”
And whereas the new generation might be making it harder for former captain Chris Robshaw to maintain his status as an England regular, Moody insists the Harlequins flanker should be used as inspiration.
“Sometimes in international sport it’s about taking the opportunities handed to you, Chris Robshaw is an excellent example of that, a player not everyone thought was international standard,” added Moody.
“He was given a chance and he’s never looked back, and as a coach that’s what you want in your players, to take those chances.”
Scotland skipper John Barclay will be outnumbered 10 to one in Cardiff on Saturday – and Wales star Hadleigh Parkes says he can expect no favours.
Barclay will have team-mates everywhere at the Principality Stadium, with 14 in the Scotland side and 10 of his Scarlets colleagues in a Wales line-up determined to continue their opponents’ long losing sequence on Welsh soil.
The 31-year-old flanker has proved a driving force behind Scarlets’ notable recent achievements – Guinness PRO12 title glory last term, and a place in this season’s European Champions Cup quarter-finals after they
topped a group that also included Toulon and Bath.
Like Barclay, Parkes has been instrumental to the Scarlets success story, but this weekend’s NatWest 6 Nations opener will not be a time for any old pals’ act.
Asked if Barclay might gain an edge, given his potential inside knowledge, a smiling Parkes said: “It might do, but I don’t think so.
“He is a pretty sensible man, but it is just what happens on the day. He might know us, but we know him pretty well, too.
“He is quite a niggly player, but a good player as well. I hope we can get stuck into him. The spoils after the game would be good.”
Wales fly-half Rhys Patchell, another one of the sizeable Scarlets contingent, can expect to be in Barclay’s sights as Scotland look to close down his time and space.
But Parkes added: “‘Patch’ is used to that – most 10s are. Everyone likes to get stuck into a 10. He is big enough to be able to take care of himself.
“He has a pretty calm head for a young lad. He has a pretty impressive and sizeable boot on him, and he is extremely fast for a 10 as well.
“Give him the outside break or a one-on-one opportunity, more often than not he comes off first. This opportunity for him will be huge, and I hope he has a great game.”
Parkes arrived on the Test match scene only two months ago after completing his Wales residency qualification period, and he made an instant impression by claiming a try double in Wales’ 24-22 victory over South Africa.
His parents Bill and Janet will travel from New Zealand to watch their son’s Six Nations debut, and Parkes is relishing being part of European Rugby’s blue riband event.
“The history has been so big over the years,” he said. “These are the biggest rivalries – Scotland, England, Ireland, France, Italy.
“They are big, and the fans make it a pretty impressive tournament. I have been to a fair few games since I have been over here, and you don’t get an atmosphere like this in the southern hemisphere.
“The rivalry between the six nations is huge and has been around a long time. More importantly, the fans really love it and get right behind it.
“Scotland have been playing extremely well in the last couple of years, and they really try to up the tempo, with quick lineouts and thriving on mistakes and turnover ball. We have to nullify that, not have too many mistakes and play some good footy.”
Reporting from the Press Association.
Alec Hepburn is poised to make his England debut in Sunday’s Six Nations opener against Italy in Rome.
The Exeter prop has been included in a 25-man squad retained for the Stadio Olimpico showdown and is set to provide loosehead cover from the bench for Mako Vunipola.
Hepburn, 25, is effectively England’s sixth choice in the position with Joe Marler suspended and Ellis Genge, Mat Mullan and Beno Obano in the treatment room.
On the other side of the scrum Harry Williams will be given the opportunity to add to his five caps in the absence of Kyle Sinckler, who is missing with a hamstring injury, behind starting tighthead Dan Cole.
Chris Robshaw, Maro Itoje and Mike Brown are present after recovering from their respective back, hip and eye problems and Ben Te’o also features having completed his rehabilitation from a high ankle sprain.
The indications from Wednesday morning’s full contact training session at the squad’s Surrey base is that Danny Care will start at scrum-half ahead of Ben Youngs, who is regarded as first choice in the position.
Eddie Jones will name his starting XV on Friday morning – Nathan Earle and Gary Graham are expected to depart for Rome as travelling reserves – ahead of the team’s flight later that afternoon.
England 25-man squad:
Back three: M Brown (Harlequins), N Earle (Saracens), J May (Leicester), A Watson (Bath)
Inside backs: D Care (Harlequins), O Farrell (Saracens), G Ford (Leicester), J Joseph (Bath), J Nowell (Exeter), B Te’o (Worcester), B Youngs (Leicester)
Back five: G Graham (Newcastle), M Itoje (Saracens), G Kruis (Saracens), C Lawes (Northampton), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Robshaw (Harlequins), S Simmonds (Exeter), S Underhill (Bath)
Front row: D Cole (Leicester), J George (Saracens), D Hartley (Northampton), A Hepburn (Exeter), M Vunipola (Saracens), H Williams (Exeter).
Reporting from the Press Association