Tom Wood and Dylan Hartley have plenty in common. Both are fixtures in a Northampton pack that has carried all before them this season; both have been known to be just a little outspoken; both play a brand of rugby frequently described as “confrontational”, although many union followers would reject the word as a euphemism worthy of a career diplomat. One other thing. They are the only men in the current England side who started the Six Nations contest with Wales in 2011 – the last time the white shirt prevailed over the red.
So much has changed so quickly. Two other players preparing to face the reigning champions at Twickenham this weekend – the scrum-half Danny Care and the prop David Wilson – were among the replacements for the Friday night bash in Cardiff three years ago, but every other member of that 22-man party is either injured, out of favour, past it, or in retirement.
Yet some things never change, the highly spiced flavour of an England-Wales match being one of them. Sunday’s game is already generating a level of heat over and above the norm as a result of last season’s title decider at the Millennium Stadium, when Wood and his colleagues crossed the Severn Bridge with Grand Slam aspirations and ran smack-bang into inspired opponents who splattered them all over the Red Dragon capital. Not being a natural member of the “forgive and forget” brigade, the flanker is in the mood to “reciprocate”, as he calls it.
There is nothing personal about it, you understand. “I don’t think it’s about putting Justin Tipuric’s head on a dartboard for the next few days,” he says, referring to the Wales back-rower who played an eye-catching, highly productive role in driving his country towards the 30-3 victory that ensured the Six Nations crown would remain on the western side of Offa’s Dyke.
“If you allow yourself to be caught up in one-on-one battles, get too caught up in the hurt of last time, you can unravel yourself. You can’t just go out there on game day with your fists clenched, thinking about revenge. The important thing is to use the disappointment to fuel your analysis, your training, your preparation – everything you do in advance of the game. Getting all the detail right and leaving no stone unturned… that’s where the motivation has to be.”
All very cool and collected. Except when Wood is talking the fires are always smouldering somewhere beneath the unnervingly calm exterior. He still insists that England were in last year’s game for longer than many made out. “I don’t think we were bullied – a couple of passes didn’t stick, resulting in huge momentum swings, and we didn’t know how to get a grip on things when that happened, but we were right there for 50 minutes until the dam broke and points came very quickly,” he says. But he acknowledges the degree of pain inflicted.
“This,” he agrees, “is a chance to right what we felt was a wrong on that day. I’d be lying if I said we’re not still carrying an awful lot of hurt. It was a harsh lesson we were taught by opponents playing on real emotion. It was a tough one to take.
“But this will be a very different game. Look at the Heineken Cup games between Northampton and Leinster before Christmas – those matches showed that just because a team wins by 40 points one week, it doesn’t make them a 40-point better team. It just means that they got it right on the day. In the first game, the momentum was with Leinster and they punished us. The next week, we showed what we could do to them.
“If England played Wales 10 times in the next 10 weeks, you’d have different results every time. It’s about who gets into the game early, who gets the ascendancy, who gets on the front foot.
“The biggest lesson to take out of all this is that regardless of Welsh form, regardless of who’s in their team and who’s not, they are capable of lifting their game when it comes to playing against us on the big occasion when everything’s on the line, as it will be in this match. It would have been easy for us to be trapped when they suffered their heavy loss in Ireland last month, to be conned into thinking they’re not in brilliant shape. It’s good for us that they’re coming here on the back of a big win over France. It changes the mindset a little bit.”
Wood – and his fellow England flanker, the captain Chris Robshaw – were overlooked by the British & Irish Lions selectors for last summer’s tour of Australia, while Wales contributed no fewer than four back-row forwards: Tipuric, Sam Warburton, Dan Lydiate and Toby Faletau. Lydiate did not face England last year, but the blind-side specialist with a penchant for scything opponents rather than merely tackling them is expected to start this time, with Tipuric on the bench.
Wood’s response is of the “so what?” variety. “They’re all very good players, so whoever they pick, they’ll have an effective back row,” he says. “Last year, people made a lot about them choosing Tipuric and Warburton, two No 7s, saying that they’d win turnovers throughout the game. It wasn’t necessarily the case. Tipuric played like a centre, making 40-metre breaks and putting people away with well-timed offloads. One of Warburton’s stand-out moments was breaking from his own 22. Lydiate is quite a different player, admittedly – you probably wouldn’t recommend running straight at him – but really, we have to concentrate on us.”
It seems nothing will deflect Wood from his purpose: not even the recently unearthed BBC promotional video that features supporters from the three Celtic nations identifying England as the team they most want to see defeated (as if this came as a surprise to anyone). “I guess it’s a compliment,” he says. “I hate everybody equally, so it doesn’t matter.”