Appropriately for the numbers he is accustomed to wearing on his back, Tom Wood is a man at sixes and sevens when judging this season as it nears the halfway point. In one breath he is answering the question of what he would say if he was offered the captaincy of England – "Yes please" is the simple reply – and in the next he is explaining why the World Cup made him "bitter and angry" and his club Northampton are at a low ebb playing a Heineken Cup pool match today with three defeats out of three in the tournament behind them.
A less engaging conversationalist than Wood might resort to the term "roller coaster". But an hour chatting to the 25-year-old from Coventry is time well spent. There is a detailed analysis of the flanker position he plays with Northampton – a mix of blind and openside which, Wood says with a glint in his steady gaze, is misunderstood by TV commentators – and how he was misused by Martin Johnson's England.
A blow-by-blow account of the brawl at Leicester a fortnight ago which saw Wood sent off and, along with a yellow card at Castres last weekend, has put his self-control under the spotlight? Tick. Throw in the extraordinary story of his partner Sarah giving birth in Dunedin on the day Wood played in a World Cup match and there is a lot of ground to cover – much as the workaholic Wood does playing in his favoured role.
England first, then. Wood, who had made a step up the club ladder when he joined Northampton from Worcester in the summer of 2010, was a mere reserve in the Saxons squad at the start of this year. But injuries to Lewis Moody and Tom Croft let him in for his Test debut in Wales and he earned admiring reviews in the No 6 jersey alongside James Haskell and Nick Easter throughout the Six Nations' Championship winning campaign.
A hairline fracture of the leg forced Wood to miss Saints' Heineken Cup final defeat to Leinster in May but he was picked for the World Cup – by which time Croft and Moody were back. Wood started one match, against Georgia, and played from the bench versus Romania. The big games, Argentina, Scotland and France? Not a sniff, as Moody, the captain, was picked by Johnson and hauled an emergency ward's worth of sticking plaster round on a wounded knee.
Has Wood been able to "park" those events of September and October? "I've never parked it, no," he says. "I'm bitter and angry about it because I wanted to play, and I wanted us to win. I'm not saying we would have won if I'd have played and I'm not saying I should have been playing. But having had such a great opportunity, we came away with very little to show for it and it's resulted in resignations and people being dragged over the coals in the media.
"I feel for guys like Lewis Moody because he's given 10-plus years to English rugby, he's been a really proud and committed player and he's gone out on a real negative note and had his reputation called into question. Whatever you say about selection he doesn't deserve that. I just wish we could have made a better fist of it."
Wood says he would have swum to New Zealand to take part. His family felt much the same. Mum and dad hired a camper van to follow his progress, and as for Sarah – whom Wood met during a character-building season with North Otago in 2006 – she had been in the country since August, preparing to give birth to their second child. Oliver, two, was joined by Isabella, who came into the world at 1.30pm on Saturday 24 September. "At four o'clock I was on the team bus," Wood recalls, "and we kicked off against Romania at six. If I had been sent home for any reason it would have all gone wrong. As it was, Martin Johnson presented me with the official World Cup plaque for that match as a memento."
What Johnson did not do, Wood says, was play to the emerging Saint's strengths. With Northampton, Wood scrummages on the openside while being a principal line-out jumper. His passion is making tackles, testing his stamina, plugging gaps in the heavy traffic of opposition attack. England's defensive system, designed by Mike Ford, deployed him out wide. It gave Wood responsibility as a marshal of the colleagues inside him, and if a turnover was achieved it would leave Wood (or Croft if he had the job) in a prime attacking position.
More often, according to Wood, it left him standing with nothing to do against cleverer teams who avoided those channels. Now Stuart Lancaster (who picked him for his Saxons debut in January 2010), Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell are in interim charge, Wood knows what he would like to see. "We tend to pick our England players from Leicester, Saracens, Northampton – and then go and try to play a different way," Wood says. "Everybody wants to play this wide, fast, open, offloading game because it's fashionable and it's attractive.
"Actually what we're good at is attrition. I'd like to see more of that. Let's look at how our Premiership clubs play and what we do well and what's got us selected for the England team and repeat that. Hopefully to a slightly higher intensity.
"I do feel quite comfortable in the England squad; I hope that doesn't come across in an arrogant way. It seems like a quick rise but I've worked hard, done my apprenticeship and it's where I've always wanted to be. I am not going to shy away from it now."
Lancaster will announce the England squad on 11 January and Moody's retirement has left a vacancy for a captain. Wood says: "It's every young player's dream to play for England, and then captaining them would be a huge bonus. I doubt there's many people who have ever turned it down. But a lot of it is media hype at the moment. I'm not touting myself."
There is certainly no self-aggrandising whitewash in his description of the brawl earlier this month ignited by his Northampton team-mate Chris Ashton tackling Leicester's Alesana Tuilagi by the hair. "I would rather be penalised for being too involved," says Wood, "than to have been stood by, watching, calming things down, being very diplomatic, or backing off and watching my friends getting kicked to pieces."
So he admits striking Leicester's Horacio Agulla while being angry at the apparent paradox that saw some punchers stay on the field. Tuilagi was also shown a red card; no reds at all would have been Wood's decision. He says: "I found it strange to have Wayne Barnes reffing it as he was always going to be under pressure having not got the Ashton-Manu Tuilagi incident [in the clubs' semi-final meeting last season] right.
"You go from one year with Ashton being on the receiving end of three unanswered punches to the face with no red card to this. I don't really know what the answer is other than for the officials to have a bit more empathy with what was going on. But the referees are under pressure like the players are." In Castres, a baffling maul offence – "I was in it at the start but the referee told me I came in from the side" – took Wood from no cards in his first 18 months with Northampton to two in a fortnight.
"It's tough to take," he says. "I'm combative but not in an illegal sense." He adds that he "knows what's coming my way for a couple of weeks", in the sense that his discipline will be watched closely. Other than that, the plan in what has been a season "disrupted" by the World Cup is for Northampton to defeat Castres today, to stay in with a shout of qualifying for the Amlin Challenge Cup even if the earlier losses to Munster and Scarlets have all but ended their interest in the Heineken, and repeat the feat against Bath and Newcastle in the Premiership before 2011 is out.
Wood says: "I've got to concentrate on keeping my feet on the ground." And, perhaps, his fists to himself.
Northampton Saints v Castres is on Sky Sports 2 today, kick-off 3pm
Captaincy contenders... Who will take Lancaster's Red Rose into the new era?
England's interim head coach, Stuart Lancaster, is due to name a new captain soon after the squad meet on 23 January to prepare to face Scotlandon 4 February. Here are the runners and riders:
Tom Wood Northampton flanker, 25. Unfussy workaholic who can be picked in the No 6 or No 7 jerseys.
Tom Croft Leicester flanker, 26. Dynamic attacking force but not always a natural fit in defence.
Ben Foden Northampton full-back, 26. At ease with media demands, and named by Lancaster as member of possible "leadership group".
Dylan Hartley Northampton hooker, 25. Captain of his club, has path clear to nailing national position down after retirement of Steve Thompson.
Chris Robshaw Harlequins flanker, 25. Only one cap to date, and might have to adjust to No 8 to get picked.
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