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
* 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.