THE BIGGEST compliment anyone can pay Tom Wood is that when Tom Croft returned from injury towards the end of the Six Nations, it was Wood and not the Leicester man who was picked for the Grand Slam decider against Ireland.
Leaving Croft out of the England side even three months ago would have been unthinkable and especially for an uncapped Northampton flanker who was merely a twinkle in Martin Johnson’s eye until the start of this championship. Johnson doesn’t take the credit for Wood’s emergence, even if the two men share many of the same qualities, instead praising forwards coach John Wells for spotting him first.
“We don’t get upset when we find international-quality players and I think we’ve found a couple this season. Tom is not from nowhere. Ever since I’ve been in this job Wellsy has been talking about Tom’s potential. These guys don’t come out of nowhere,” says Johnson.
“Woody’s had a fantastic season. He’s a worker – he works incredibly hard and just wants to get better. He’s a tough guy who hasn’t been fazed by Test rugby. I said from the start that his character gave me a great indication he was going to be pretty good. He’s an instinctive and smart player who’s established himself in the team very quickly. He’s his own man. He’ll make his mind up on things and he won’t go with what he’s told because someone is his boss. He’s a good lad.”
Being a “good lad” can often be underestimated in Test rugby and is one of the qualities Johnson continually refers to as he needs men who will fit into a 30-man squad, and who will this year be away from home together for most of July, August, September and October.
Wood’s style couldn’t be more laid-back. When I meet him at England’s team base in Bagshot, he’s very relaxed in his team tracksuit and flip-flops. He makes you feel immediately at ease and it’s easy to see why he has impressed Johnson both on and off the field, the later achievement becoming more important.
“It’s been brilliant,” Wood tells me before the defeat to Ireland, “and it has been remarkably easy to feel a part of the England squad. That is testament to the guys and the team – the whole management staff have made me comfortable and made it clear what my role is.
“There are no egos in the England squad. Everyone is good mates and the players make you feel right at home; everyone looks after everyone very well. They have made me feel confident in my own ability and I’ve been encouraged to go out and do what I do.”
Wood was thrown into the white-hot atmosphere of the Millennium Stadium at the start of the championship and grew from there. Even he would admit his first 20 minutes in Cardiff were quiet, but showing the mark of a good player he grew into his role at blindside and by the end of the game was acknowledged as one of England’s most impressive performers. “It was a very big deal when they said I was starting. I had to put aside all the emotional aspects of it and the pressure and concentrate on what I’ve been doing for Northampton.”
Wood, who like the England manager spent time in his formative years playing in New Zealand, recognises Johnson’s description of him. “I can’t afford to be anything else apart from being down to earth and level-headed,” says Wood. “There’s a lot of media, a lot of hype around playing for England. I have to concentrate on the rugby, the thing I do best. It’s easy to get carried away with playing for England.
“I have massive family support, which means I can get away from rugby and relax. I enjoy talking about something else now and again. It’s been strange for my mum to hear me on the radio and for my parents to be asked to do interviews for the local papers.
“With England you have to get straight down to business. You have to be very matter-of-fact about the whole situation. You can’t be joking and having throw-away comments in the media. You’ve seen how France and Wales have done it against us, it has only spurred us on, fired us up – it doesn’t serve a purpose for your team. When personal attacks were made against the likes of Dylan (Hartley) in this championship it only brought us closer together.
“Playing for England has been a big challenge but I’ve learnt so much to take into the rest of the season – it’s been a really positive learning curve. We’ve come out with a lot of credibility and I’m proud of that.”
Wood’s emotional side did surface after the defeat in Ireland, which ended their hopes of a Grand Slam. “It pretty much felt like I’d had my heart ripped out because the Grand Slam was there for us and we just weren’t good enough,” he said in the bowels of the Aviva Stadium. “We didn’t come here for scars and lessons, we came here for a Grand Slam but we got it wrong and it’s a bitter pill to swallow.”
It’s a pill, of course, that could benefit England in the future. But one thing’s for sure, when the trophies do arrive Tom Wood won’t be getting carried away with the plaudits and the gongs.
This article appeared in the May 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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