Tom Wood: 'I'm so new to all this... but I feel as though I belong'
England flanker Tom Wood could win a Grand Slam in only his fifth game. He tells Chris Hewett how he has come so far so fast
Saturday 19 March 2011
Some of the finest back-row forwards in the history of English rugby waited for ever and a day to experience an occasion like this, and they were the chosen ones. Others waited even longer, only to find that they had done so in vain. Roger Uttley spent seven years being kicked from pillar to post and back again – his face, bent out of shape Picasso-like, continues to tell us all we need to know about rugby sacrifice – before playing in a Grand Slam match, while Tony Neary, unquestionably better looking but still a little rough round the edges, accumulated more than 40 caps on his journey to the same place. Budge Rogers? Andy Ripley? Peter Dixon? Try as they might, they would never reach the holy of holies.
Four games and 300 or so minutes into his England career, Tom Wood has barely started his apprenticeship as an international loose forward, let alone qualified. Yet here the 24-year-old is on Grand Slam day in Dublin, relishing the prospect of a rare old scrap with a high-calibre Irish back-row unit, having tasted nothing but the nectar of victory since breaking into the side ahead of last month's opening championship game in Wales. If many of his predecessors are left wondering why some guys get all the luck immediately when they spent entire careers getting next to none of it, can we honestly blame them?
Wood was certainly dealt a decent card or two during the winter, not least when Tom Croft, the Lions flanker, was Springbokked clean out of Twickenham before Christmas and missed three months of rugby as a consequence. But as Croft is fit and firing now, and would have started this evening's game had his rival's recent form been anything less than terrific, we can also say that a significant proportion of Wood's good fortune has been of his own making.
"It will be an occasion of some magnitude," says the Northampton flanker, revealing almost as big a talent for understatement as he has for reducing opponents to dust with a close-quarter tackling technique that owes much to his long years of rope-learning in rugby communities as far apart as North Otago and the West Midlands, and something to a mastery of martial arts that earned him black-belt status in his early teens. "The nice thing from my point of view is that I can just go out and play – just carry on doing what I've been doing, which is getting stuck in. I'm so new to all this. I definitely feel a part of it, feel as though I belong, but everything is still so fresh. It's been a great few weeks."
Since his red-rose debut at the Millennium Stadium a month and a half ago – a debut so good, he must have been within a gnat's crotchet of relieving Toby Flood of the man-of-the-match award – he has been bracketed with a couple of World Cup winners circa 2003: Richard Hill, the most complete English back-rower of the modern era, and Martin Johnson, a forward of a very different stripe who just happens to be the individual responsible for picking Wood in the Test team. Neither comparison bears serious scrutiny just at the moment, but there is undeniably something Hill-like about Wood's demeanour on the field and something Johnson-ish about his demeanour off it.
"The thing with Tom," said the manager, who might as well have been describing himself, "is that he's his own man. He doesn't go with what he's told just because the person telling him is his boss, or happens to be older than him. Instead, he makes up his own mind about things. He's a worker, and he's a smart, instinctive rugby player who doesn't get fazed when asked to do something he doesn't do at club level. He's tough, too. I've spoken quite a lot about the importance of character when it comes to Test rugby, and I like Tom's character a lot. We've been aware of him for a while: people say he's come from nowhere, but he hasn't. Ever since I've been doing this job, John Wells [the forwards coach] has been talking about the job he thought Tom could do for us. Now, he's doing it."
One of the things Wood shares with Johnson – and with one or two of his current England colleagues, Tom Palmer and Simon Shaw included – is first-hand experience of the sport as it is played in the greatest of all rugby countries, New Zealand. But while the time he spent in Oamaru, hidden away in an infrequently visited corner of the South Island, gave him a clear idea of how much he needed to add to his game if he was to satisfy his ambition, he feels this aspect of his development has been blown out of proportion in much of the coverage he has received since the beginning of last month.
"I certainly feel that my time with Worcester has been overlooked," he says. "New Zealand was important, but it was in the Worcester Academy, working under people like Gary Meakin and Andrew Stanley, where much of my development took place. I was always an energetic kid, someone who genuinely loved training and was desperate to push forward. Sure, there were times when I could have killed for an extra hour in bed, but generally, all I wanted to do was get fitter and improve technically. They never held me back – never said 'no' to me. They were always there, helping and supporting.
"And when I made it into the first team at Sixways, I learnt so much. People say to me that I'm in the England team because I moved to Northampton and started playing for a winning side. They say, 'You were picked because you were spending every week on the front foot and you were on top of the Premiership'. My argument is that I am where I am because of the rugby I played when things weren't so easy – when I spent most of my time grafting away on the back foot, my back against the wall. I learnt a hell of a lot at Worcester, precisely because things were difficult. It's in those circumstances that you find out about yourself."
Unlike Croft, who presents the most obvious and immediate challenge to Wood's place among the England elite, the newcomer rarely finds himself in possession in the wide open acres, working up a head of steam down the touchline or diving over in the corner for a match-winning try, as the Leicester man did off the bench against Scotland last weekend. Wood lays hands on the ball as frequently as the next man, but it is generally on the drive through the heavy traffic as the tackles smash into him from every angle known to geometry.
"Actually, the running and passing game – the glamour stuff, if you like – was a big part of my rugby when I was working my way through the age groups, and it's something I mean to get back. But I'm not the heaviest of blokes, so I had to work really hard on my technique in contact. In doing that, I forgot all about playing rugby with ball in hand. I started to live for defence, taking enormous pride in making 20 tackles a game and wiping most other things from my mind.
"I remember finding myself in a whole lot of trouble at Worcester one day. I'd won the ball at the line-out, then sprinted the width of the field to hit a ruck on the far touchline. That was my mindset, basically. But in doing that, I'd effectively gone absent without leave and messed up our entire system of attack. My obsession with the contact area of the game had been completely counter-productive. I don't think I'm quite as bad as that now, but I still need to broaden my game."
Is the England squad the place to do it? "Definitely," he replies. "So many young players with strong attacking instincts are part of the team now – Ben Foden and Chris Ashton and Ben Youngs, among others – that we feel we have a licence to go out and play. You can't plan too much, can you? Structure is important, but you can't be too religious about it. Provided you get your own game right, you can bring your philosophy to the group and expect it to be taken seriously. This England set-up is all about self-improvement in the cause of improving the team, and it's wonderful to be a part of it."
Grand Designs: England's six Post-war Slams
1957 Intelligently led by the Sale hooker Eric Evans and blessed with backs as good as Peter Jackson and Jeff Butterfield, there was always a chance that England would land a first Slam since the 1920s. The rugby of the time was hardly free-flowing, Evans' team managing 34 points in four games.
1980 Bill Beaumont's season in the sun had its dark moments – the politically-charged punch-up with Wales at Twickenham remains one of the dirtiest matches ever broadcast on television – but there was brilliance, too. John Carleton's hat-trick of tries at Murrayfield on the final day lives on in the memory.
1991 England had come close the previous year, but were famously denied in Scotland. There would be no mistake this time, even though the French brought the best of themselves to Twickenham and out-scored their hosts by three tries to one. Under modern scoring values, this pivotal game would have been drawn.
1992 Will Carling's team were on average 25 points better than their opponents, even under the four-point try system. Geoff Cooke, the head coach, fielded the same side in all four games, just as he had the previous year, and was rewarded with a first back-to-back Slam in more than 60 years.
1995 Jack Rowell succeeded Cooke and "Slammed" it at his first attempt, helped by a huge back row boasting three No 8s: Tim Rodber, Ben Clarke and Dean Richards. There were nine tries in three games, but the job was completed by Rob Andrew, who kicked 24 points against the Scots.
2003 After years of near-misses, Clive Woodward's side finally found a way through the newly-expanded tournament to register a first Slam of the professional era. The opening meeting with the dangerous French was unnervingly tight, but from the halfway point of the second game in Wales it was one-way traffic.
And how they measure up
Post-war Slams: France 9; Wales 7; England 6; Ireland 2; Scotland 2; Italy 0.
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