Six Nations 2014: France v England - Tom Wood the warrior ready to give battle once more

England flanker is intent on easing the pain of last year’s loss in Wales – starting by making the new French half-back pairing ‘feel the heat’ in Paris tonight, he tells Chris Hewett

The sense of frustration does not bite quite as deeply as it did – in fact, Tom Wood claims he has moved on in body, mind and spirit – but if truth be told, the horrible experience in Cardiff on the final day of last year’s Six Nations still eats at him.

Informed that Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, wants his players to “strut like the reigning champions they are”, the most ruthlessly competitive member of the England pack glowered. “I don’t really care how the Welsh walk, to be honest,” he snapped, by way of riposte.

A couple of days before that title decider at the Millennium Stadium in March, which was decided in favour of the home side well before close of play, Wood was praised to the heavens by no less a figure than Andy Farrell, a key member of England’s coaching team and a man who had earned the right twice over, through many and varied deeds of derring-do in both rugby codes, to choose his words carefully and expect them to be heeded.

“Tom is a warrior,” Farrell told this newspaper, his face a picture of seriousness. “You just know that in a game of this magnitude, with the pressure this intense, he’ll be there for us. He’s completely reliable.”

Wood was certainly there or thereabouts, even though he was playing out of position at No 8, but as many of the players around him disappeared off the face of the earth – Chris Robshaw, his back-row partner and captain was one of very few honourable exceptions – only a small number of people noticed. Eleven months on you just know that if the Northampton man had his way, he would play the game again tomorrow… and the day after, and the day after that. Just as often as it took for him to right the wrongs perpetrated by Sam Warburton, Justin Tipuric and company.

“People still talk about that blip in Wales” – he used the word “blip” because, in his opinion, England have achieved a respectable level of consistency over the last couple of seasons – “and it’s a fact that we ended up on the wrong end of a disappointing scoreline. But actually, we were in the fight for a long time that day. There were a couple of big swings that took the match away from us, but…”

If this made him sound like the union game’s version of Monty Python’s limbless knight, who famously hollered “Tis but a scratch” as King Arthur sent his left arm flying into the gloaming with a single slash of the sword – he did not appear to give a fig.

To Wood, there is no buzz like the buzz of adversity. A match is something less than a contest if there is no serious obstacle to be overcome, no risk to be stared down.

The French pack will pose a very serious threat indeed in Paris this evening and it was wholly characteristic of Wood that he should talk openly about the importance of meeting it head-on.

“The French have picked an untried half-back partnership and if we allow them to get into the game, I’m sure they’ll look like world-beaters,” he said. “So it’s our business to hold their scrum-half on the floor and get in the No 10’s face – to force him on to the wrong foot, go in search of the chargedown and generally make him feel the heat of Test rugby. And to exert that kind of pressure, we have to be on the front foot at the breakdown. I’m sure there’ll be a storm for us to weather because these matches are always very attritional, but we’ll bring our own fire to the occasion.” There you have it, in a nutshell: rugby union, the Wood way.

Such is his confidence, he can barely imagine how it will feel to fail in the bleak northern suburb of Saint-Denis, where the City of Light always seems to lose some of its glow. While many observers – and, maybe, even one or two of his fellow players – took an optimistic view of England’s defeat at the hands of the All Blacks at Twickenham last time out, Wood was unimpressed. It was, he thought then and still thinks now, an opportunity wasted.

“There was certainly a feeling amongst the media, amongst the supporters, that we’d made a gallant effort, that we’d tried hard, that we’d given the world champions a run for their money, and that if we’d come second it was only where we were meant to end up,” he said of that contest before Christmas. “Well, I wasn’t at all happy with that, because accepting defeat isn’t in my nature. The game was there for us to win, but we let it slip by not controlling the last 20 minutes.

“When I put on an England shirt, I do it in a positive frame of mind: I don’t simply want to win, I expect to win. I believe that if we go out there and put our best foot forward, we’ll get the job done. That’s how I’m approaching this game, and it goes for the rest of the team.

“There are some new faces, agreed, but there’ll be no allowances for them. They’re coming into a pretty established set-up, into a culture and an environment where high standards are expected. We’ve had this conversation. They’re here on merit as a result of their form in the Premiership and they’ve given themselves a chance, so it’s up to them to take it. There should be no fear about it; no one should be daunted. The word ‘fear’ doesn’t come into our thinking.”

Almost 11 months on from the marmalisation at the Millennium Stadium, the England coach, Stuart Lancaster, says that one of the contributing factors to that day’s deflating events was an imbalance in the red-rose back row. Ben Morgan, the Gloucester No 8 who, on a good day, enjoys an open-field tear-up as much as any loose forward around, was off-limits through injury and it fell to Wood to perform the make-do-and-mend chores.

He had managed well enough for three games, but Cardiff was a step too far – not least because Wales upped the ante in the tempo department by picking two open-side specialists in Warburton and Tipuric, both of whom would be selected for the Lions tour of Australia in preference to any English contenders.

Now, the English cupboard is not quite so bare when it comes to the middle of the back row. Morgan is fully fit, if not fully firing, while Billy Vunipola is giving off the unmistakable vibe of a special rugby talent – a once-in-a-generation player.

“Billy is in the team for obvious reasons,” Wood said, smiling at the thought of his young colleague going toe-to-toe with Louis Picamoles, the powerhouse ball-carrier from Toulouse. “He’s a phenomenal athlete and a huge presence. When Chris or I speak to him during a game, it’s simply to reassure him that if he does his basics correctly he’ll make an impact, whoever we’re playing.

“Good back-row units are all about balance, as Stuart says. You can have the best three ball-carriers in the world playing alongside each other but if you don’t have the other ingredients – some flair, some ferocity, good decision-making skills at the breakdown – you don’t really have a back row. You don’t necessarily select on individual ability alone. You select with a view to putting the right combination on the field.”

There was a moment last week when Lancaster was wondering how he might pick a satisfactory combination without his key enforcer. “It’s pretty unheard of, two back-rowers injuring each other during a game of touch rugby,” Wood remarked, recalling a serious clash of heads with the Exeter flanker Tom Johnson that initially appeared to have left him with a fractured something or other – jaw, cheekbone, whatever. An immediate scan revealed he had suffered nothing more than superficial damage, much to the relief of everyone in the camp, but the bruising around his right eye still bears witness to the force of the collision.

“Yes, I came off second, well and truly,” he said. “It’s always happening. I still have the remnants of a black eye on the other side of my face: it happened when I was playing for Northampton against Worcester and I went round the back of a tackle overeager to make a big hit and Courtney Lawes did the same thing at the same time. Courtney’s head won.”

Two contests, two defeats. Wood’s luck has to change some time, so if the French forwards have any sense, they will stay out of his way this evening.

Flanker facts: Wood details

* Born 3 November 1986, Coventry

* Club career

2006 North Otago

2007-10 Worcester

2010- Northampton

* 23 caps for England

* Debut v Wales (a), 4 Feb 2011.

Has made 19 starts for his country, winning 17 of his 23 appearances, a win percentage of 74. Featured in the 2011 World Cup.

* Named 2011 Premiership Player of the Season following his first full campaign with the Saints.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan