There’s no doubting the tenacity and bravery of England’s captain and openside flanker, Lewis Moody, but one of the key concerns ahead of Saturday’s Investec International is whether he can cope with David Pocock of Australia.
Everybody knows that Moody is prepared to put his body on the line, not hesitating to stick his head where others wouldn’t stick their boot for fear of getting hurt – and it’s no surprise that Tom Wood was called up as injury cover for Moody, who was suffering from ‘general soreness in the head’. He must get that a lot.
Unquestionable commitment, but is he a world class openside? He fared reasonably well against Richie McCaw last week, and was something of a talisman in dragging England back into contention, but in my view, he’s yet to prove himself a master of the key openside skills.
For me, Pocock is currently the best in the world in his position, with his ability to turn the ball over and to make life difficult for the attacking team to recycle quick ball. His physical presence and strength are ideally suited to getting low at the breakdown whilst staying on his feet, making it that much harder to clear him out before he’s ripped the ball away.
He’s still only 22 and has amassed 27 caps since his debut in Hong Kong against New Zealand in 2008. The days of George Smith and Phil Waugh fighting for that 7 shirt already seem a distant memory, and Pocock has been a key figure in Australia’s rejuvenation over the last 18 months.
Opposite Pocock, we have Mad Dog Moody, renowned for chasing kick-offs like a demented labrador and for diving on a loose ball quicker than anybody else. He’s not necessarily renowned for making huge numbers of tackles and getting back to his feet instantly to challenge for a turnover, causing problems at the breakdown and generally slowing down possession.
Of course, it’s not all down to Moody to contain Pocock: the whole side will need to be aware to nullify the threat, but the battle of the opensides should be a fascinating contest, and it could be critical in determining the result.
A lot of the focus for Saturday’s game has been on either the scrum, where England may have a slight edge, or the backline, where the Wallabies undoubtedly have the edge. However, quick ball is the key: if Pocock slows down England’s ball, they’ll struggle to score points. If he’s regularly able to steal the ball in the tackle, Will Genia, Quade Cooper, James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale will carve England up with turnover ball.
Moody and the rest of the pack will need to be at their very best if England are to live with Pocock.