England vs Ireland: Tom Wood feels hungrier than ever

Thanks to England’s backroom staff lab ‘rats’, flanker – who eats 6,000 calories a day – is in shape of his life as he prepares for today’s World Cup warm-up match

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The Independent Online

The England players have a name for the number-crunching geeks who spend their days holed up in a gloomy corner of the red-rose training base in Surrey working out how much of everything each member of the squad does over the course of a training session: metres run, acreage covered, tackles made, rucks hit, line-out lifts effected… even, God forbid, passes completed. They call them “the rats”.

It is not entirely clear how or why these well-meaning folk came to be saddled with such a sobriquet, although it could have something to do with the fact that, with so many back-room staff on the payroll, no player is ever further than six feet away from one of them. Whatever the reason, they are doing their level best to ensure the 31 members of the World Cup party want for nothing in the way of information.

Take Tom Wood, the Northampton flanker and occasional national captain, as an example. Nutritionally speaking, he knows he must consume precisely 6,000 calories a day simply to compensate for the weight lost during an average stint on the practice paddock. “I’m permanently grazing,” he says. “I probably should be eating right now.”

Wood does not involve himself with the fine detail – “someone just comes up to me and says, ‘Eat some more’,” he explains – but he knows that as a result of his mathematically modelled training regime he is somehow both smaller in frame and heavier in kilos than he was a few months ago and is therefore in a position to offer more in the way of dynamism and “power value” than at any previous point in his international career.

 

 

 

“There are different types of fitness and different approaches to it,” he continues. “Right now, I feel ‘gym powerful’: even though I’m not lifting the really big weights or doing the stuff that makes you look good in a tight shirt, I’d probably wipe the floor with my previous self when it comes to conditioning. The training has been hard – even this week, it’s been a heavy load – but I think I’ll be more mobile as a result of it.”

Which is all well and good. But what England really need from Wood is something that cannot be measured and printed out on a spreadsheet, no matter how advanced the technology at hand. What they need is some old-fashioned, no-nonsense, hard-bitten, red-blooded aggression.

A couple of seasons ago, when the 28-year-old Midlander was playing the Six Nations house down in a Grand Slam-chasing England back row, the assistant coach Andy Farrell waxed lyrical about his contribution in the columns of this newspaper.

“Tom is a warrior,” Farrell said, with a “takes one to know one” look in his eyes. “He’s completely reliable in terms of commitment and application. He’s one of those players who really cares. His fitness levels are extraordinary, his combativeness likewise. That’s enough for some people, but not for him. He’s also completely driven when it comes to helping everyone else get better and it’s this that makes him such an important part of our leadership group.”

And so he remains but, with the energetic James Haskell of Wasps putting his best foot forward as a blind-side flanker, Wood is not quite the automatic first-choicer he once was.

There have been injuries – he was not fit for the start of this year’s Six Nations – and there have been some uncharacteristic quiet spells. Intensity will never be a problem for him, but consistency is no longer a given.

You might say something similar about the England pack as a whole, although in Paris last time out there was a lack of vigour as well as some obvious short-circuiting on the performance level front. Overtly belligerent types being a little thin on the ground in this red-rose squad – something that could not be said of the World Cup-winning vintage of 2003, armed as it was with Steve Thompson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Neil Back and the supremely confrontational Martin Johnson – there are good reasons for the home supporters to crave a vintage Wood performance against the Irish this afternoon.

Happily for the Twickenhamites, there are sure signs the visiting back-row trio of Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip will feel some heat in the loose exchanges. “You can work as much as you want on all the technical stuff,” Wood says, “but when it comes to the breakdown, it’s mostly about mentality. If you win the race and you’re physical and abrasive, that part of the game normally takes care of itself. Once you start overthinking things…”

 

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Wood has become a mainstay in the England squad

He does not for a second buy the popular argument that England are short of a “natural No 7” – indeed, he can be rather challenging on the subject, demanding to know exactly what his interrogator might mean by the phrase.

“I’ve always said that a back-row unit is about balance,” he argues. “When I look at people who carry the tag of ‘natural 7s’ – Justin Tipuric [the Welsh open-side who played so impressively against Ireland last weekend] or Michael Hooper [the exceptional Australian flanker] – I see players who do a lot of their best work in open field. If you play two such people together, as some teams may do at this World Cup, you may lose something at close quarters.

“You need a range of qualities: you need a line-out element, some ballast, carrying ability and a big tackling game, as well as ball-winning skills at the breakdown. Ultimately, it has to be about what works for you.”

When Wood was given his first taste of World Cup rugby in 2011, a few months after making a successful international debut against Wales on Six Nations opening night in Cardiff, he found himself in a relatively soft pool: England, fifth in the global rankings, were grouped with seventh-placed Scotland, ninth-placed Argentina and two rank outsiders, Georgia and Uruguay. The South Americans are there again this time, in an even weaker state, but this is where the fun stops. Both Australia and Wales are above the hosts in the standings, while Fiji are lurking dangerously in the top 10.

 

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England flanker Tom Wood

Just for a second, Wood grimaces at the thought of going into a home World Cup as the third best team in the pool. “I’d like to think we’re better than sixth in the rankings,” he says. “The margins are pretty tight at the moment, but it would be nice to go in as No 1. Or certainly No 2 or 3. But the tournament won’t be defined by the ranking places at the start of it.

“It won’t be defined by the outcome of this warm-up game with Ireland, either. We want to win, of course: we want to go into the tournament carrying some momentum with us and we don’t want to entertain losing at Twickenham, so we won’t be taking it lightly.

“But everything has been geared to peaking on the opening night against Fiji, so if we lose now we’ll at least be able to park it and feel glad that we got it out of the way before the main event.

“The important thing for the forwards is our high level of belief. Yes, we made a series of individual errors last time out against France. We weren’t on-script: while everyone was trying to make a difference, we weren’t listening collectively to the call.

“But our pack has provided a solid platform for a long time now and been the salvation of the side at times. We have great confidence in ourselves.”

Three of Wood’s epic games

Wales 19 England 26, Millennium Stadium, February 2011

Difficult night for a Test debut: frenzied crowd, sulphur in the air. Wood settles immediately, carrying hard, tackling with meaning and contributing strongly at the line-out to set England on the Six Nations title track.

England 38 New Zealand 21 Twickenham, December 2012

The most celebrated red-rose victory under Stuart Lancaster had plenty to do with Wood, whose up-and-at-’em approach in the first half, when the contest was hottest, set the perfect example. Man of the match for his tackling alone.

Northampton 21 Leicester 20 Franklin’s Gardens, May 2014

A Premiership semi-final classic that showcased club rugby at its roughest, rawest and best. Wood took another man-of-the-match award with his effort in the eye of the storm and scored the winning try at the death.

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