Whilst Toby Flood and Chris Ashton were busy writing the headlines in this tight affair, a young debutant was quickly making himself at home in international rugby. Young Tom Wood was supposed to be overawed by this occasion, but to say that he looked at ease in the bear-pit atmosphere of the Millennium Stadium, roof closed and all, was an understatement. It is not unheard of for more experienced internationals to have come unstuck here. Instead, Wood thrived.
Rampant in the open field, Wood beat more defenders than the rest of the England team combined, and his drives off the ruck continued to make huge inroads through the congested midfield as the Welsh forwards tired. Finishing with one of the highest tackle counts on the field, his captain for the day Mike Tindall went on to say that he was “everywhere”. Combining a mix of power and athleticism, the England back row of Wood, James Haskell and Nick Easter nullified a Welsh back row featuring young tyros Dan Lydiate and Sam Warbuton, as well as the returning Andy Powell. As debuts go, this was good.
Though his performance may have come as a surprise to many, those who have followed his career will have been largely unmoved by the maturity and high level of his debut. Beginning his career at Worcester, Tom Wood was an ever-present force on the blindside flank for the Warriors and, despite often playing in a losing side (I hear slight murmurs of the word “unfashionable” too), was touted very early-on as a future England player. However as Worcester faltered at the start of the 2009/10 season and sensing the need for a change, Wood signed for Northampton in January before playing out the rest of a disappointing campaign for Worcester that ended in relegation.
As Worcester started their long season in the Championship, Wood began explosively for Northampton. Playing in the unfamiliar role of openside flanker, he was awarded man of the match in Northampton’s first game of the season against fierce rivals Leicester and as the season developed, Wood’s career has continued to progress. He has been a stand out performer in Northampton’s strong Premiership performances as well as playing an integral part in a formidable Northampton pack that has destroyed all-comers in the Heineken Cup. Though not altogether inevitable – especially considering the continued lack of recognition for teammate Phil Dowson – Wood’s call up was both widely predicted and well received.
Wood’s future as England’s first choice blind-side certainly does not look straight forward when considering the likes of the returning Croft along with the experience of Haskell and Worsley, and he will have tougher challenges ahead than those faced in Wales. However if he can continue to play with the same maturity, endeavour and commitment as he did against Wales, then Johnson will be left with little option but to restore the Saints’ flanker. But as the old cliché goes, you’re only as good as your last match – and it will start all over again for Wood when England face Italy this weekend.
By Tom James