Tom Wood: 'There's no better place to start my Test career – I intend to get stuck in'

After a barnstorming season with Northampton, the flanker tells Chris Hewett he is ready to be thrown in the deep end for England

England may have lost a captain in Lewis Moody, a wide-roaming athlete in Tom Croft and a supplier of turnover ball in Hendre Fourie, but they have gained...what, exactly?

"Two six-and-a-halves," said James Haskell, the flanker recalled to operate alongside the uncapped Tom Wood in the eye of tomorrow night's Six Nations storm at the Millennium Stadium. It was an open and honest acknowledgement that in terms of back-row specialisation, the visitors will head for Cardiff with two loose forwards who are neither one thing nor the other.

Never a man to lay awake at night wondering if he is good enough, Haskell is perfectly happy with his new England role as a "mix and match" merchant. What about Wood, though? He, after all, will be making his debut at a venue Haskell identifies as "the only one in the world where the crowd noise takes on a life of its own".

After a moment's thought, the Stade Français player gave his new partner the seal of approval. "Tom will know during the anthems, when the hairs stand up on the back of his neck, whether he loves international rugby or doesn't love it. I'd put my money on him loving it."

In some ways, the new man is anything but green. The talk of the academy circuit while learning his trade at Worcester, Wood is now, at 24, the talk of the Premiership after contributing handsomely to Northampton's surge up the domestic and European rankings.

If he has suffered his share of injuries – a broken leg, a shattered shoulder – he has shown high levels of determination in playing his way back. What is more, he spent some quality time hardening himself up in All Black country. This, as no less a figure than Martin Johnson will confirm, is a central part of a rugby man's education.

"They called me 'Tom the Pom' and gave me loads of abuse," Wood said yesterday, recalling his tour of duty in North Otago, a sparsely populated neck of the union woods, even by the standards of New Zealand's wonderfully uncongested south island. "But it was a really positive move: a good life experience, as well as a good rugby one."

"I wanted to break out of the academy mould; to live in the real world. I worked full-time – fetching and carrying on a farm, labouring on a building project, managing a department store – and built my rugby around it. There were guys there who would spend all day on the farm then run over hot coals to make a training session at night. I wanted to be like them; to get some of that reality back into my life."

The reality tomorrow evening will be somewhat different: the National Stadium in Cardiff on match nights is a long way from Oamaru, and not just in the geographical sense.

Yet while Wood admitted to feeling a little anxious – "I was told I was playing on the first day of training in Portugal last week and it's been a long build-up, so to be honest with you, I'd like to get on with it as quickly as possible," he said – there was no suggestion that a serious outbreak of the heebie-jeebies might be imminent.

"There's no better place to start my Test career," he continued, "and I intend to get stuck in. I don't know any different. The most important thing to me is earning the respect of the people I'm playing alongside, and while the England training environment is really inclusive, you don't do that until you go out there and perform in a match. That's my motivation."

According to Johnson, the newcomer said next to nothing on being appraised of his promotion to the starting line-up before that first training run on the Algarve. "We don't go in for fancy conversations, and anyway, Tom's from Coventry," the manager said, as if to suggest that any player heralding from this particular corner of the Midlands is either a Trappist or a dumb mute. In actual fact, Wood's downbeat response had more to do with his quiet confidence than any failing as a conversationalist.

Why wouldn't he be confident? Since leaving Sixways for Franklin's Gardens at the end of last season, Wood has raised his profile with one momentum-fuelled display after another.

He has finished on the losing side only twice since the start of the Premiership campaign in September, and was as influential a figure as any in Northampton's unbeaten run through the Heineken Cup pool stage.

There again, he has spent the last five months in the open-side flanker's idea of heaven, thanks to the strong-armed supremacy of the Midlanders' tight unit. "Yes, I've been lucky enough to play most of my recent rugby on the front foot, which always makes life easier," he agreed. "But then, I spent three years on the back foot at Worcester. I think I'm able to battle and graft. Certainly, I believe I'm more than a line-out forward."

His line-out relationship with his Northampton clubmate Dylan Hartley will, however, be at the heart of things tomorrow, and if he can somehow perform well enough to compensate for the cruel loss of the injured Croft, a place in Johnson's squad for the World Cup later this year will be his for the taking.

Most top sides possess a reliable aerial specialist armed with genuine pace and an all-court game. Very few are blessed with two.

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