Nick Cain talks to Tom Wood about his triumphant return to England’s back row

 Tom WoodTom Wood is the embodiment of the new England. He is a fierce marauder who uses his mobility and work-rate to pressurise the opposition, his raw-boned frame cleaving into them like a hatchet.

There is a toughness and a beady determination about the Northampton back rower, as well as a steady-under-fire unflappability. It is borne of a deep desire to be part of an England side that scales the heights, and you sense Wood is the sort who will pick up and shoulder any load, in attack or defence, to get him and his team-mates there, with France on Saturday another foe to be felled.

What neither Wood, nor anyone in the England camp, will say is that if France saunter about the Twickenham pitch as they did in Paris last week, and Rome before that, then the cockerel stands every chance of being spatchcocked and roasted. However, that is a plausible outcome if the French are lackadaisical against an England side that aims for an intensity and accuracy at the breakdown to unsettle even Thierry Dusautoir, the idefatigable worker-bee that France lean on so heavily.

Head coach Stuart Lancaster declared at this week’s training camp at the FA’s St George’s Park centre near Burton-on-Trent that, “We will assume that the France for the 2011 World Cup final will turn up”.

Irrespective of that,  England will aim to turn up the heat. A significant part of the English battle plan will be to play at a sustained speed that leaves the French, schooled in the slower, heavy-duty combat of the Top 14, struggling to fill their lungs.

However, should it not go to plan, which is a regular Six Nations hazard, England have another crucial asset. Adaptability. Wood’s performance at No.8 in Dublin, moving there from blindside flanker to cover for the injured Ben Morgan, illustrates the point. In dire conditions, behind an England scrum that did not dominate and had shaky moments, Wood was flinty. He refused to be hustled and harried in the driving rain, keeping the link with Ben Youngs at scrum-half strong.

Tom Wood

Tom Wood

And here’s the thing. Apart from moving across to scrummage at No.8 when Morgan went off against New Zealand and Scotland, Wood, who has been mainly at blindside for England and at openside for Northampton, says he has not played No.8 for seven or eight years. “I worked with the England No.9s in training, and played at No.8 a lot as a kid. I also had a few games there as a Colt and maybe a couple for Worcester Seconds, but outside these three games for England I’ve never played there as a pro.”

As for his showing at No.8 in Dublin, where he outshone an out-of-sorts Jamie Heaslip, he dismisses his ability to adapt so impressively with the observation:“The surface was rough, with mountains of turf to dig the ball out of when the scrums were crabbing, but I felt I dealt with it okay.”

Wood’s resilience had been tested thoroughly long before England grafted and crafted their way to the 12-6 win over Ireland that leaves them as the only unbeaten side in this Six Nations. The lean 6ft 5ins Coventry-born forward came close to being forced out of the pro game when, after spending most of the World Cup on the England bench, multiple injuries to his left foot in the autumn of 2011 brought him to his knees.

A freak separation of the bones in his big toe started a chain reaction which was compounded by a broken toe and then a rupture of the arch of his foot. He was out of the game for 10 months, dealing with pain and deep frustration.

“I was wondering if I would ever run properly again. I got angry at everyone. I wanted clarity, and no-one could give it.”

Gradually he worked his way back by learning to manage the injury, rather than finding a complete cure, and, after playing regularly for the Saints, forced his way back into England line-up this autumn.

He has stayed there throughout, his relentless energy translating into a talismanic man-of-the-match display in the win over New Zealand. However, what is startling given the brutal collisions in the Colisseum of international rugby, is what Wood says next. “Taking my foot out of the boot is always the most painful part of Test rugby.”

He elaborates: “I spend an hour every day on my foot, iceing it and getting manipulation from the physios. It’s improved, but it’s about managing it week to week, and to some extent I may always have to. I can work as hard as I like on rowing machines and bikes, but running impact work has to be regulated. It’s all now just part of my routine. Otherwise, I try to forget about it, because I’ve had some torrid months when it’s just been a grind.”

Thomas Domingo

Thomas Domingo

Wood, 26, expects grind of a taxing but more enjoyable sort against the French pack. Having made his debut in the 2011 Six Nations, he played in the 17-9 win over France, and he does not expect much change at Twickenham despite their defeats by Wales and Italy. “They are a heavy side, and I expect a big contest up front. There was a lot of graft two years ago, and it took a long time to break them. They will be fired up and hurting.”

Wood says that England will aim to raise the stakes by subjecting France to withering volleys of what they fear most. “We aim to give the opposition what they don’t want – and that’s pressure. We work hard, and no-one wants to be the last off the defensive line. Our aim is to get the ball, and, when we do, it’s our job to come alive in attack.”

Wood says that there have been big gains in this area thanks to the squad’s approach to fitness. “A lot of it is psychological, and about being given the freedom to play that way. There hasn’t been any one specific fitness regime change, but we have a culture where work is encouraged and not seen as a chore, and that’s made a difference.

“The back row, for instance, is always volunteering for extra sessions, whether weights, breakdown skills or handling. Now we train very much as we play, and we don’t mess around. Sessions are shorter and sharper, and there’s true competition for places. We are a younger side picked on form in which you have to show it and prove it daily, or weekly. We don’t hang all our hopes on one or two players any more either – now we have a team collective.”

He adds: “It is a culture change. Stuart Lancaster made some big calls when he took over to heave out some big name established players and to pick young guys to take England into the next era. We don’t get too bogged down in analysis and we work with simple team-first principles. It’s about working hard for your mates – which is what rugby’s always been about.”

If France play ball by turning up in body but not in mind, then everything points to England’s collective force and focus resulting in a third tournament win in succession.

However, the danger with raider rugby is that the desire to inflict damage with speed and unrelenting pressure in the loose, is that sometimes you take your eye off the set-piece – and, on the evidence available in Dublin, this is where France are capable of damaging Wood and company.

The French scrum is better than Ireland’s, and England’s tighthead Dan Cole has conceded that he did not have his best day opposite Cian Healy. That makes the return of  Thomas Domingo to the French scrum at loosehead crucial, because it could give Philippe Saint-Andre’s beleaguered side the foothold they desperately need.

The squat Domingo is the most formidable loosehead in the Six Nations, and Saint-Andre’s aim will be to put the squeeze on at the set-piece and snare England around the fringes. Slow England down, so that ‘Le Crunch’ becomes a trial of heavyweight power, get the French scrum and driving maul into forward gear, and send Louis ‘The Iceberg’ Picamoles and Mathieu Bastareaud smashing into the English ranks, and the French have a chance of rescuing their season in one fell swoop.

The recent evidence suggests, however, that even if France succeed in shoving England into a deep pit, that with the likes of Tom Wood in their ranks, they will have the spirit, resourcefulness and resilience to dig themselves out.

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