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RUGBYPASS+ Tom Wood: 'It seems to be frowned on to say, 'I just out and out like whacking people'

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Tom Wood: 'It seems to be frowned on to say, 'I just out and out like whacking people'
1 month ago

Tom Wood is at peace. When interviewing the 50-cap England backrow in September 2018, with the body already creaking from 200-plus games, he told this writer, “I want to get out while the going’s good. I don’t want to leave the game blinking into the daylight without a clue what I’m going to do.”

Stroking his greying beard, four years on, Wood smiles, “I think I’ve delivered on all those things.”

At 35, and famously driven, the Northampton Saints talisman considers himself ‘fairly organised’ at what life is going to throw at him, at least in the short term. A qualified tree surgeon – if you need a strapling, or an hundred year old oak looked at Wood’s your man – he also has a new business, Waller & Wood, with his long serving team-mate Alex Waller, to keep him busy. “I make my own bespoke furniture and I’m formally in business with Alex. We’re streamlining all our social media, marketing, bank accounts and nearly ready to go.”

Fortunately for admirers of the teak-tough breakaway, he’ll keep his hand in rugby, doing some corporate work and holding the mic in commentary, as he did at the recent Premiership Final.

For Saints fans who have adored him for the last 12 seasons at Franklin’s Gardens, racking up 240 appearances, there is solace that at least he’ll be ducking and diving around the Gardens on a regular basis. “I’m only down the road, so it would be daft to not go back. I’m not someone who is going to turn his back on rugby, but can I stress right now, I have no desire to be a coach. If it’s match-days, hospitality or sponsorship, I’m sure the club can make use of me.”

What’s nagging away at Wood as we talk in Gijón is that the game’s soul is under threat. The very values that underpin the game he’s played since a young mini at Barker’s Butts, are being chipped away and that rugby has just become a job. Perhaps this is unsurprising with the game in its 27th year of professionalism but nevertheless, it saddens the ever-honest Wood. “I think rugby’s getting pretty sterile; law changes all the time, new directives, inconsistencies, the game’s power brokers sanitising everything. Listen, I understand rugby has to evolve but from my point of view, I don’t enjoy rugby as much as I used to. The fun is seeping out of the game.”

Tom Wood
Tom Wood bows out with the Barbarians after a magnificent career (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

While Wood acknowledges that certain amateur traditions will naturally be waylaid in a professional era where results are everything, he feels the game has to reconnect. “I get it. You’re there all day and every day but these days there are no meals post-match. No beers with the opposition anymore. We barely ever go into the opponent’s dressing room, swap match shirts, or shake hands with your opposite number. All that stuff used to be commonplace. Now it’s very corporate. As soon as the game is over, people get in and out of dodge sharpish. It’s got to the point I’m genuinely amazed how quickly the changing room empties out.”

The flanker makes it clear that he isn’t having a dig at Northampton, far from it, it’s just reflections on how the game has changed. “We’ve actually got a couple of guys at Northampton who drive the social stuff and they do a good job but it was very hard through Covid years. Generally speaking it’s not prioritised. Not driven by clubs at all. There’s no budget for it, no scheduling for it.”

With a five-week contractually enforced break from club duties, Wood sees players clocking in and clocking off from July to the following June, in a never-ending season but it doesn’t mean the bonds are tighter. “In that time, we’ve probably had two or three team socials. I only met the new player’s wives and girlfriends at our end-of-season do. For a sport that claims how family is at the heart of the game, getting to know one another has been side-tracked.”

In a world where every type of behaviour is scrutinised, Wood doesn’t mind being seen as old-school for saying that the best way of forging deeper relationship is by having a beer, or three. He swings his camera 180 degrees for affect. “Look, the boys are all sat by the pool. Everyone is picking themselves up after last night, which was a bit of a loose one”, he chuckles.

It seems to be frowned on to say, ‘I just out and out like whacking people’. I like colliding with people. I like competing. I like the combative element of rugby.

“If you’re going to go into battle with another side, it’s far better to know your team-mates inside out, to have those deeper connections. To know what common interests you share outside rugby. It makes you tighter as a group. Personally, I would do things differently, I’d prioritise and schedule socials in. Sometimes they’re tagged onto the end of a big training week and it’s the last thing the boys want when they’ve been chatting scrums and lineouts 24/7.”

While he professes not to crave entering the coaching world, there is no doubt Wood could turn his pin-sharp mind to mentoring and inspiring the next generation. He seeks clarity over obfuscation and doesn’t apologise for actively seeking physical contact. “People oversell how simple the game is. A lot of people don’t like to hype up or celebrate the physical nature of it. There are now regulations about head contact, concussion regularly makes headlines and there are myriad red cards for high tackles. That’s fair enough but it seems to be frowned on to say, ‘I just out and out like whacking people’. I like colliding with people. I like competing. I like the combative element of rugby. It’s a big part of why I got into it in the first place. Getting stuck into each other and having a beer afterwards is what rugby is all about to me.”

Wood, alongside fellow Saints, Courtney Lawes and Dylan Hartley. He had 50 caps for England (Photo by David Rogers – Getty Images)

Warming to his subject, he says that ultimately rugby is about grown men running after a ball. “You can put all sorts of structure and convoluted words and deconstruct the game of rugby into its micro-elements but at the end of the day, it’s running around with 14 of your mates trying to physically beat up the 15 blokes on the other side.”

At 6ft 5ins and 17st, with a rugby schooling in New Zealand and a taste for outdoor sports, Wood’s combative approach to rugby is unsurprising, and his candour refreshing. “Rugby is a metaphor for life. How many times can you get knocked down and get up again. Can you play on with a broken nose and broken finger. Can you still fulfil your role within the team when you’re hurting? Are you there for your team-mates when they need you? Can you apply your skill in the face of raw physicality and intensity? Having skills is great, but it’s nothing if it’s not under the threat of getting smashed.”

A few years ago drowning your sorrows, or celebrating your wins with the lads was celebrated, but with social media, you’re pre-disposed to seeing the snarky comments that eat away at you and make you think twice

For this throwback to a bygone era, a final hurrah with the Barbarians was almost poetic, for the BaaBaas is almost extreme polar opposite of professional rugby. “It’s definitely at the other end of the spectrum and it’s probably not sustainable week-in, week-out as a professional player but it’s certainly recreating that old-school environment. It’s like rugby values in their truest form. What you envision it to be growing up, almost in the amateur era. The best way to galvanise a team in the shortest period together is to go out and have a feed and have some beers together and we’ve done that. We’ve got together, created a few memories and within two or three days, bingo, it’s mates for life.”

Wood harks back to a world before camera phones, where a solitary snapshot can be misconstrued and bring shame on individuals and clubs. “I’m not talking doing anything illegal or anything, but a photo, that looks compromising, or can be put into a misleading headline can be quite damaging. A few of you could be drunk on a night out and suddenly, you’ve got a scandal about ‘rugby drinking culture’ even when you’ve done nothing wrong. A few years ago drowning your sorrows, or celebrating your wins with the lads was celebrated, but with social media, you’re pre-disposed to seeing the snarky comments that eat away at you and make you think twice.”

Everywhere Woods looks, his old Saints muckers are forging on with new careers. Christian Day is working with the RPA, Ben Foden has recently hung up his boots and is going into real estate, Dylan Hartley has fingers in pies, while the evergreen Stephen Myler is last man standing, still trucking on at 38 down in Swansea.

Tom Wood
Wood has never shied away from physical confrontation in rugby (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The uncertain marketplace for rugby’s silverback alpha-males is creating a stability like never before, with the likes of Luther Burrell- who has spoken with such lucidity about encountering racism in recent days – Mike Brown, Rob Miller, Marcus Watson and Joe Simpson, actively looking for clubs before being lost to the game.

So is it rugby reflective of society, or has rugby been poorly managed? “It doesn’t look great for rugby in that salary caps are being squeezed and belts are being tightened. We want a brand that people buy into because it’s exciting. If people like Luther (Burrell) and Mike (Brown) can’t get contracts, that doesn’t bode well. To see Kyle (Sinckler) tweeting about 100-odd players out of contract, is far from ideal. It’s above my paygrade but players have become collateral damage in rugby’s attempt to break even.”

Wood stresses that he’s always wanted to insulate myself from the situation Mike and Luther find themselves in. “Everyone has to deal with the end of their career in their own way. Some people will play rugby as long as there’s a contract is put in front of them, but I wanted to get out on my own terms and with my reputation intact. The money decreases as you get older but the workload doesn’t get lessen. If anything, the risk of injury goes up. If you are no longer the player you were, that’s what the fans remember. I wanted to hang up my boots relatively at the top of my game. ‘Always leave them wanting one more song’.”

They are big shoes for Dows to fill. You can never be ready or qualified to do the top job. There’s no book, no degree on how to be a DoR, everyone does it their own way.

Reading between the lines, you would surmise that had Wood set his mind to it, another year could have been eked out. “I could have, perhaps, gone to another club, taken a paycut at Saints, or played a more experienced mentoring role at Saints but that’s just not me. I want to be competing. I want to be playing for 80 minutes. I want to be up for selection, not a travelling reserve.”

While Wood plants his Defenders on his ears and indulges in a spot of business with the circular saw, Northampton will plough on, after a season full of promise, and curtailed only by a loss to eventual Champions, Leicester. It was a game where they could easily have prevailed.

Chris Boyd will no longer be calling the shots, with Phil Dowson and Sam Vesty, both still relatively in their coaching infancy, taking the reins. “On a personal note, I want to say a thank you to Chris, who was a breath of fresh air when we needed it. He knows and takes his rugby seriously, but he had a really calming influence on the group. Everyone would say they learnt a lot from him. He goes with everyone’s best wishes.

As for the apprentices, Wood says it was always the plan to graduate the Saints duo. “They are big shoes for Dows to fill. You can never be ready or qualified to do the top job. There’s no book, no degree on how to be a DoR, everyone does it their own way. If you’re a young guy stepping up to the plate for the first thing, and things don’t go your way immediately, there will be eyebrows raised and criticism. I just hope he gets time to settle in. Dows will do it his own way. He’s different to Chris, has a different manner and approach but there will be continuity of game plan, which is important.”

Tom Wood
Wood will formally go into business with Ethan Waller now his playing career has finished (Photo by Henry Browne/Getty Images)

While Wood settles into a new life, he will be an interested observer this weekend as England take on the Wallabies in a three-Test series, with Eddie Jones’ men failing to find consistency. “I’m not privy to the inside circle to draw conclusions but the thing with England is they have an embarrassment of riches. In England, you could pick an English backrow combination from a handful of clubs and still have a Test class backrow. For Eddie, it’s a case of deciding his gameplan, the combinations he likes, the balance he want and picking them and sticking by them.”

He continues: “Take backrow, you get a player like Sam Simmonds who scored all those tries. Sam may not have fitted Eddie’s version of what an England backrow should look like, but he felt compelled to pick him. Now Billy Vunipola’s back, after Alex Dombrandt’s injury and Callum Chick isn’t far behind. England’s depth is a hindrance because it’s hard to nail down ‘go to’ guys and build consistency.”

While Wood is proud that Tommy Freeman, George Furbank, Lewis Ludlum and Courtney Lawes have made the trip Down Under, he is still scratching his head about the omission of the league’s form No 9. “Danny (Care), Jack (van Poorvliet) and Harry (Randall) are all great players. Danny especially has had a fantastic season, and I can’t believe he hasn’t been in the squad for the past four years, but Alex Mitchell is the up and comer who could be in or around the squad for the next 10 years. He’s been on fire for us all season. He creates tries on his own, sets them up. His all-round game is so good. I don’t quite understand his non-selection.”

Never knowingly without a considered and strident opinion, you would hope that Wood follows through his intention to stick with the game of rugby, after all, it has given him so much, but then rugby owes the likes of Wood a debt. One of the game’s great servants can rest easy, he has never let anyone down.

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