When Tom Wood limped off the Liberty Stadium pitch on Sunday afternoon, it was not just Northampton Saints fans that were nervously gnawing on their fingernails. Wood has become an integral cog in the England machine, and his being injured for the Six Nations would have been a serious blow to the Red Rose’s chances. All such fears have since been allayed, however, with the Northampton flanker confirming that he’s in good shape for the weekend.
“It’s a little bit sore, but it’s not looking like anything long term,” he says. “There was a bit of bruising, but it was largely just an impact injury.”
As he left the pitch, the Saints had a seven point cushion over the Ospreys, but crucially had only scored two tries. Chasing an all important bonus point, they could sadly only manage another one leaving them excruciatingly just short.
“There were mixed feelings in the changing rooms afterwards,” admits Wood. “It’s strange really, coming away from a game against pretty much a British Lions pack away in Wales, and being disappointed with a win. We’ve got to give ourselves a pat on the back though, because they’re a tough team and we were pretty convincing winners.
“But it would have perhaps been nice to have capitalised on some of our scrum pressure early on, and been pushing for that bonus point a bit earlier. They don’t concede many though, so to come through and score three against them at their own place was a pretty good achievement really.”
As good an achievement as that was, it has left their qualification chances hanging by a thread, and effectively in the hands of Leinster. Should, by some complete aberration, the Irish province lose at home to the Ospreys without a bonus point, and the Saints get a winning one at home to Castres, then they could feasibly still qualify. Wood acknowledges that this is far from perfect.
“We don’t want to get caught up in the maths of it all, but we realise it’s a bit of a long shot,” he says, grudgingly. “If it [Leinster losing] should happen though, we want to be in a position to capitalise on it.
“Stranger things have happened, but it’s easy to get caught up in the context of the competition and forget that actually, playing the Top 14 champions in front of a packed Franklin’s Gardens is a huge game in its own right. We let the fans down earlier in the season against Leinster, so we owe them a big Heineken Cup showing.”
Occasions such as these, however, could be few and far between in the next few years. With the future of European Rugby still in major doubt, Wood says it adds extra importance to games like tomorrow’s against Castres.
“It doesn’t distract you as such – if anything it adds a little extra incentive, thinking that it could potentially be our last Heineken Cup game. What will be will be in regards to the structure of the competition next season; we’ll leave the powers that be to sort that out. As players it’s just about living from week to week and making sure we’re putting performances in.”
It is tough to talk about Northampton these days without mentioning their marquee name, a certain Welshman winging his way into Saints’ fans hearts. Wood has been as impressed with North’s transition into the team as anyone.
“It’s pretty impressive when an 80 metre run-in is your trademark,” he laughs. “It’s fantastic for you as a forward though, when you’re doing all the hard yards up front, trying to secure possession and get some momentum for the team, you know when the ball does go wide that someone like George is going to capitalise.
“It gives you a real lift as a forward, knowing your hard work is going to good use. There’s nothing worse than picking your head up off the floor of a maul or a ruck and seeing the ball on the floor, or having gone 50 yards backwards!”
While the brilliance of North is something to celebrate for Wood at the moment, with the Six Nations just around the corner the two Saints will soon be cast in their more familiar roles of adversaries as England and Wales go head to head again. Wood says revenge for the result in Cardiff must not become a distraction to England.
“No, it’s a whole new competition,” he says. “We certainly have to learn our lessons from last year, and I think we’ve gone some way to doing that already. I think we’ve taken a few lessons out of that, and we’re a better side for it.”
That day Wood was deployed as a number eight, a strategy that failed miserably against the specialist units in the Wales back row. For the most part in England colours, however, Wood wears six and captain Chris Robshaw dons the seven jersey, creating a partnership that has been hugely successful in all aspects of the game, and has largely made a mockery of some people’s claims that you need a ‘genuine’ six and seven.
And while there were rumours aplenty before the Autumn series that Wood would replace Robshaw as long-term captain, the Northampton man claims that this speculation has never got in the way of their working relationship.
“I get on really well with a lot of the England lads, but particularly Chris in the back row,” says Wood. “A lot’s been made of the captaincy, but that’s never come into it in terms of our relationship in camp. We each do our bit in terms of being leaders, and running the team both on and off the pitch.
“It [the captaincy] is not something I actively seek, because I don’t think that’s the right way to go about it, but if I was ever asked to do it, if Chris was unavailable for whatever reason, and I got the opportunity then I would take it with both hands and do the absolute best job I could with a huge amount of pride.
“I’ve got the utmost respect for Chris and the work he’s done leading this England side, and I really enjoy playing and training alongside him.”
England’s Tom Wood was speaking at the launch of ‘Show Your Schools Colours’ – a nationwide competition to identify and reward the best supported team in the NatWest Schools Cup – the premier tournament in schools rugby. Vote for your school at rfu.com/thegame/competitions/natwestschoolscup/fanvote
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43