There is not a living soul on Planet Premiership who would question Tom Wood's willingness to suffer for his sporting art, but very few of those who follow English rugby know the half of it. If the hard-bitten Northampton flanker, widely expected to return to the red-rose starting line-up for this weekend's meeting with South Africa, can legitimately claim to be fit for such a brutal examination, it is only because he is happy to meet adversity head on and wrestle it to the ground, as though it were some hulking great rival forward of the Springbok variety.
Wood missed last season's Six Nations Championship because of a condition, as complex as it was chronic, affecting the big toe of his left foot – something to do with sesamoid bones, high arches and too much flexibility in the hallux department. Nine months on, there is still no sign of a complete recovery. As a result, he spends some of his daily downtime scrunching up his foot in a bucket of sand and rice and undergoing hot and cold rehabilitation processes immediately after training. He also wears specially constructed boots that are not so much stiff as completely rigid. By comparison with this acutely uncomfortable regime, mixing it with a couple of bully boys from the high veld will be child's play.
"I'll continue to live with it for as long as necessary, although I hope the problem will be eradicated at some point in my career," he said yesterday. "I manage it from day to day: it's not just a question of working the toe in the rice bucket but also of doing shock-absorber exercises on my legs, because if my foot doesn't flex when I run, the impact occurs elsewhere. I'm fully fit, though. Fit and raring to go."
Sir Clive Woodward, England's World Cup-winning coach, had some harsh things to say about the national team following last weekend's defeat by the Wallabies, perhaps the most stinging of which was that they should start "toughening up".
Assuming Wood is confirmed in the side when the current coach Stuart Lancaster reveals his hand tomorrow, that process will be well under way. Northampton have their share of rugged individuals on the back-row roster – Phil Dowson and Calum Clark are among the most overtly aggressive players in the domestic game – but the Midlanders are at their most implacably competitive when Wood is on the field.
Did he agree with suggestions that the England forwards were too conciliatory when the Australians were in town? "I don't think it was a question of being soft," he replied, "but I think you'll see our 'dog' on display in a different way against the Boks. The physical challenge ahead of us – and it's not as if we don't know what's coming – means our aggression level will have to be addressed. I'll be bitterly disappointed to say the least if we don't get straight out of the blocks and front up.
"James Haskell [the Wasps flanker who is also a contender for a back-row position] says that when you play the South Africans, it's a 'man test'. I know what he means. They look at you, pick out your biggest guy and go for him as hard as they possibly can. If you show fear, it's a long day at the office. But this is the kind of game I love best. With the Boks, it's about getting among them and making your own ball as quick and clean as possible while making theirs as messy as possible. I'm not the biggest, but I am abrasive. That's a quality I think I bring to a team."
Not all England players could have said such a thing without being accused of blowing their own trumpets with Dizzy Gillespie-like swagger, but when Wood sits down to chew the fat, the A-word that springs to mind is "authoritative" rather than "arrogant". He understands his game and his role in the squad, is honest in his appraisal of the opposition and is merciless in identifying the shortcomings of his own team. Looking back on the six-point loss to the Wallabies, he said: "Perhaps we got a little carried away trying to drive them – became one-track-minded because we thought they would crack." Short, sharp and to the point.
This time last year, after the England players had returned home from the World Cup in New Zealand with tails firmly between legs, Wood was an obvious candidate to succeed Lewis Moody as captain. Marginalised for much of the tournament despite an eye-catching Six Nations contribution, he was among the least culpable members of the squad. Indeed, he had seen the wheels coming off earlier than most and had made his feelings known, as plainly as he felt able. Here was a strong-minded, gutsy individual who had little patience with, or sympathy for, players less dedicated than himself.
Thanks to his orthopaedic hassles, any chance he had of beating Chris Robshaw of Harlequins to the leadership role quickly disappeared. But he has the air of a senior player about him and if he and the skipper dovetail effectively against the Boks, the coaches will be one step closer to finding a back-row balance that really works. And if the combination proves disjointed? Watch out. There could be a low-flying bucket of rice somewhere in the vicinity.Reuse content