Expert Witness: England legend Lewis Moody predicts All Blacks victory as he gives a fascinating insight into facing New Zealand

Lewis Moody Expert Witness Credit: Alamy
Lewis Moody Expert Witness Credit: Alamy

England face their biggest challenge in three years this weekend as they take on the All Blacks at Twickenham, a re-run of the 2019 Rugby World Cup semi-final, thought by many to be Eddie Jones’ crowning achievement in his seven-year reign as head coach.

Former England skipper and world champion Lewis Moody is this week’s Expert Witness as he joins James While to preview what promises to be an absolutely epic encounter.

The pinnacle

“Playing New Zealand is without question the absolute pinnacle of Test match rugby. It is a unique challenge – one where you feel as if you’re facing every member of their population, playing against a country that is defined by its sporting success,” Moody said.

“There’s an old adage that there’s no such thing as a bad All Blacks side and that’s absolutely true. Their culture, identity and their pride is embodied in that black jersey and the depth of public rugby understanding is unmatched anywhere in the world. For New Zealand, a winning rugby team is everything to the nation and when you face them, you feel that cultural emotion coming through from their players in every carry, every tackle and every set-piece you face.

“The tone is set with the haka – an absolutely vital and unique part of rugby – and of All Black culture – something I respected fully and enjoyed greatly. It was a positive emotional experience and one I thoroughly embraced – allowing me to understand and respect the importance of the match – forcing me to channel my emotions and my focus on my performance – knowing that if I gave anything less than 100% I’d be blown off the face of the park, such was the emotional intensity and technical brilliance I was about to experience.

“It is visceral and it polarises your senses – colour, noise and smell become amplified; you understand that you are being personally challenged by rugby warriors and that you have to respect and respond to the amazing battle they are offering to you.

“It’s a moment when you can quite honestly tell yourself ‘this is it – it doesn’t get any bigger, harder or better – I’m on top of Rugby’s Everest,” enthused the England legend.

“Winning against them creates euphoric emotions – I managed it only once in my career – 2002 – as I was injured in the 2003 win in Wellington. That match was at Twickenham on only my 11th appearance for England on the blindside flank. I even managed to squeeze over for a try in the corner in the first half, but the resulting tackle as I went over smashed my shoulder up quite badly – an injury that troubled me throughout the 2003 Six Nations, took an age to fix and troubles me to this day, but a moment I’ll never forget.”

The battle ahead

“England will know exactly what to expect on Saturday. They understand the importance of this game in terms of building for the World Cup and, importantly, will be focused on using the haka as motivation to start as hot as possible – failure to do that can mean you’ll lose the Test in the first 10 minutes as you can be absolutely sure that New Zealand will come out punching from the first whistle,” Moody said.

“Eddie Jones hasn’t enjoyed a vintage 2022. It’s been a weird year for England – stop start in terms of injury and availability, average in terms of results but this is a key opportunity to turn an unimpressive year into a positive one and should the team overturn New Zealand and South Africa in the next two weeks, a lot of the previous mediocrity of this season will be forgiven and forgotten.

“Jones is often at his best when selecting and coaching to play the Southern Hemisphere sides. The team he’s picked on paper is close to the strongest available, even if it lacks game time together. I am intrigued regarding the back-row selection given the comments Eddie has made recently about the necessity to play a big blindside flank.

“I believe he’s picked Sam Simmonds there as a direct horses for courses selection, mindful of the pace of the New Zealand loose trio and happy to concede height for speed. Had we been playing the Springboks, I would have betted on a bigger six but in this match, pace and technical ability over the ball is key for England over sheer physical presence.

“Simmonds and Billy Vunipola will alternate at number eight I suspect, with Simmonds used for explosive fast yards off the base on our put in. We will see a lot of five-man lineouts from England as a result of the shorter back-row, using ground and lift speed to outwit on our own throw.

“In the back division, I would have liked to have seen Joe Cokanasiga as he’s been possibly our best runner with ball in hand this November but injury excludes him. Perhaps we are a yard short in terms of outright gas, but the guys selected are experienced Test match animals and know exactly what they need to do.

“I want to see a vintage performance by Manu Tuilagi in the centres – he’s been managed through the season and his litany of injuries very wisely and carefully, but this is now the occasion for him to throw the kitchen sink at the match and test himself as thoroughly as he possibly can. Manu at his best tests and focuses any defence in the game, and the space he creates for others merely by being a focus point for the opposition is absolutely priceless for England,” he explained.

The centurions

“The All Blacks have tinkered with a winning formula. Brodie Retallick’s return is crucial for them – he, like Owen Farrell, becomes a Test centurion for his country in this match, a very unusual occurrence in the sport and I am sure they’ll share a magic moment together at some point post match.

“Ian Foster’s plan of using Jordie and Beauden Barrett at 12 and 15 respectively worked well in Cardiff; Richie Mo’unga offers a little bit more strategic control at 10 and it’s noticeable that when he plays, Aaron Smith thrives as he has slightly more freedom in terms of being freed from exit strategy duties.

“When playing New Zealand it is absolutely key that you understand that they defend with only one purpose – to score tries at the other end! It’s all about getting the ball back quickly in transitional rugby in order to get down the other end. From exit kicks to breakdown defence, everything is about creating an opportunity to play deconstructed rugby and to back the skill sets of the All Blacks to score.

“England cannot spend aimless amounts of time going sideways in possession – that will only result in getting turned over and broken apart in scramble defence – their approach has to be fast, dynamic and straight down the middle with intent. It’s not one of those attritional games where you inch ahead owning the scoreboard – one mistake close to their line when striving to drive over from static rucks can cost you 14 points in a blink of an eye – as you fail to score, get turned over and they go the length to score.

“The battle of the benches is also going to be key. Both sides are rammed with experience and skill in their finishers with 250 or so caps on each. England are clearly concerned about the fitness and form of their midfield, hence picking Guy Porter and Henry Slade, although the former can play on the wing and the latter at full-back. I suspect that if the scores are close that the superior bench impact might be a telling factor.

“It’s going to be an incredible Test match – brutal yet skilled, fast yet powerful. Calling a winner is almost impossible – but whilst the heart always says England, perhaps my head believes that the All Blacks are really on a form upcurve and I reckon they’ll just have a little bit too much in terms of pace and attack on this occasion,” Moody concluded.

READ MORE: Flashback: The day everything fell into place for England against the All Blacks

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