A few days ago, when he was reminiscing about Andy Farrell’s qualities as a rugby player, the World Cup-winning England defence coach Phil Larder said the following: “He was extra special. Ice-cool under pressure, incredibly tough… he had this aura about him. He was Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson and Will Greenwood rolled into one.” It seems Larder would have had the man beatified and canonised had it been in his gift.
Now that Farrell is performing an expanded version of Larder’s old role, he too has his favourites. One of them is Tom Wood, the back-row forward from Northampton. He started this Six Nations tournament as an automatic pick on the blind-side flank and will end it, in Cardiff on Saturday, as an emergency No 8 who has already confronted specialists as accomplished as Jamie Heaslip of Ireland, Louis Picamoles of France and the extraordinary Sergio Parisse of Italy, and lived to tell the tale. Does Farrell talk of Wood in the way Larder talked of Farrell? Yes and no. He is unusually lavish in his praise, but expresses his feelings in a single, powerful word rather than a series of glowing sentences.
“Tom is a warrior,” the coach said this week, as he commenced preparations for the Grand Slam match at the Millennium Stadium. Farrell does not use the W-word lightly for, to him, it encapsulates everything he really values in a rugby man. If Margaret Thatcher wanted to express complete faith and trust in a colleague, the phrase “one of us” would pass her lips. To Farrell, “warrior” carries the same weight.
“You just know that in a game of this magnitude, with the pressure this intense, he’ll be there for us,” said the coach. “He’s completely reliable in terms of commitment and application. That’s what I mean when I call him a top professional. He’s one of those players who really cares, not just about himself and his own game but about everything we’re doing as a squad. His fitness levels are extraordinary, his combativeness likewise. That’s enough for some people. But for him, it’s not enough. 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 the leadership group.”
Wood has never been one to go easy on himself, heading to New Zealand as a young academy player for a spell of club rugby in the ruck-’em-hard, hang-’em-high badlands of Otago, and accepting the painful consequences of completing his union studies in what he calls “the best university in the world”. Now he has spent the last couple of years making life a whole lot easier than it might have been for the England pack. As the Welsh forwards are likely to rediscover today, he is the line they must cross if they are to deny their visitors the ultimate prize in the European game.
Rediscover? Indeed so. A little over two years ago, Wales had their first taste of Wood when England headed across the Severn Bridge for the opening match of the 2011 Six Nations – a game molten to the touch following some searing pre-match comments by the home coach, Warren Gatland, and further inflamed by a spectacularly stupid evening kick-off slot which caused a 20-mile traffic jam, a delayed start and an awful lot of frayed tempers. Wood was making his international debut that night. He played the full 80 minutes at a level above and beyond all expectations and helped his side to a famous victory.
“Yes, that was a good day,” he recalled after the last of this week’s serious training runs. “I couldn’t believe the noise there, couldn’t believe the atmosphere – the way everything in the stadium seemed to be on top of you. We’ve addressed all that side of it this week because there is always a sideshow before a game with Wales and it can be a bit unsettling. But we’ve been in some tough places since and had a lot of hard questions asked of us. What gives us confidence is the fact that when we’ve had our backs to the wall, we’ve always come out fighting. As long as the foundations of our game are in place, our passion and ferocity and togetherness will always give us a chance of winning.”
There have been bad days as well as good. Too many for comfort, if truth be told. Wood returned to New Zealand a few months after that wonderful debut performance as part of his country’s World Cup squad, but made just the one start against Georgia – a bitter disappointment made more acute by the arrogance, indiscipline and imbecility he saw unfolding around him. Then he broke down with a bewilderingly complicated toe injury that incapacitated him for much of last year and could easily have ended his career. He would have climbed the walls with frustration but for the fact that he could barely climb a flight of stairs.
This season he has been playing in rigid, Italian-made boots, specially designed to minimise flexibility and potential harm to his offending digit. He is also managed carefully in training and rarely puts in a full week’s work on the practice pitch. Yet, according to Farrell, there is a positive side to all this orthopaedic trauma. “Tom is a fighter and, because of this, he has something inside himself to fight against and defeat,” the coach said. “If anything, it’s made him more determined. I believe it has made him stronger.”
At Northampton, the coaches are more than happy to spare him a percentage of the weekly grind, but he generally completes two and a half of the three major rugby sessions on which the Midlanders’ training routine is constructed. “We keep Tom as fresh as we can,” says Dorian West, the former England hooker in charge of the Saints pack, “but if we need him to participate, he’s always ready to go. Together with Calum Clark [a member of the current red-rose squad who would probably have been capped during this Six Nations but for injury], he’s the guy who sets the standard at our club. They’re deeply competitive spirits, both of them, and they push themselves to the limit all the time.”
Wood plays much of his rugby at Franklin’s Gardens as an open-side flanker and it is highly likely that he will emulate the likes of Richard Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio, two revered high achievers with honoured places in the England back-row pantheon, by performing all three loose-forward roles at Test level. Indeed, West believes he is equally capable across the range – something neither Hill nor Dallaglio could claim, for all their brilliance.
“If you’re asking me what I think Tom’s best position might be, my answer is that I don’t believe he has one,” he says. “To my mind, he’s good at pretty much everything. He’s a quality line-out performer, his work rate is exceptional, he’s strong in the tackle, aggressive on the carry and he competes like hell at the breakdown. We probably have half a dozen really good loose forwards at Northampton and irrespective of who we pick, he’s capable of balancing out the unit.
“That versatility is a valuable asset. We were very aware of him when he was at Worcester, and when we had the chance to sign him we didn’t think twice. He was meant to go to Leicester, and when that fell through we were straight in there. From memory, the paperwork was completed within a week. When someone with his potential becomes available, you move fast.”
While West sees shades of a former England captain in Wood – “He’s a bit like a Martin Corry with pace,” he says, “not that Martin will thank me for saying that” – Farrell has been even more complimentary. “Would he have made it in rugby league? Damned right he’d have made it,” said the man who captained Wigan as a teenager, led Great Britain as a 21-year-old and was, in the eyes of many a proud northerner, the very personification of the 13-man game in all its murderous physicality.
Yet the words that tell us most about Wood – that give us a sense of what it is that makes him so vital to this England side – were spoken by Wood himself. Recalling those eight months of club rugby in All Black country before his 2011 debut at the stadium to which he returns today, he told this newspaper: “I wanted to break out of the academy mould and live in the real world. I worked full-time – fetching and carrying on a farm, labouring on a building project – and built my rugby around it. There were guys over 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 in my life.”
Stats and facts: Wood in numbers
88.88 England’s win percentage in the nine Six Nations games in which Wood has featured
17 Appearances for England since his debut in Wales in February 2011
2011 Year in which Wood was named as the Premiership Player of the Season