England grappling with sense of uncertainty ahead of Six Nations
Tom Wood unhappy high-tackle sanction has been introduced mid-season
England backrow forward Tom Wood: “Rugby feels like a different sport to when I started.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
All the planning in the world cannot entirely insulate England from potential early mishaps in this year’s Six Nations Championship. A more upbeat France team and a damp long-range weather forecast are both nagging concerns, while coaches and players also suspect World Rugby’s well-intentioned crackdown on high and reckless challenges will significantly affect the opening rounds.
It is not just the possibility of more yellow and red cards that worries the England backrow forward Tom Wood, but the sense of uncertainty. Ask Wood how the stricter tackle-height emphasis will affect all-action defenders such as him and his reply – “I honestly don’t know” – sums it up neatly. “I don’t like the idea of changing the rules mid season,” said the Northampton flanker. “It doesn’t seem fair when something you get away with one week is heavily punished the next.”
The 30-year-old is quick to acknowledge he is all for “making the game safer and making the game flow as well”. The tougher tackle sanctions this year, however, are prompting some short-term anxiety, with even experienced players not absolutely sure where they stand. “It’s always tough when an individual suffers for something that was absolutely fine one week before,” said Wood, who is among those concerned that one accidental false move could lead to a player being on the sidelines for much of the championship.
A collective meeting of Six Nations citing officers and disciplinary officials took place over the weekend in an effort to achieve consistency from the outset but, as with previous edicts on straight scrum feeds, it is always easier said than done. “I’m sure there’ll be some directives in the early part of the Six Nations that they’re really hot on and it will then fizzle out a bit,” Wood said.
England, nevertheless, have been working with the leading referees JP Doyle and Wayne Barnes to try to ensure they satisfy the Australian official Angus Gardner next Saturday. Given the physicality of the French pack, however, Wood is not naive enough to expect a game of pat-a-cake: “My dad always spoke of playing against French teams in the amateur era and how vicious they were. Growing up they were probably a contradiction, the backs playing with flair and ambition behind a big, heavy, horrible-looking pack.”
The latter characteristic has never really changed and Wood will be particularly warning his team-mates about the number eight Louis Picamoles, now his Saints team colleague. “He has taught me to expect the unexpected when playing alongside him. He gets himself into situations where you think there’s no chance of an offload coming but he still manages to get one away. He is a great player.
“It seemed a strange decision to me for him to come from France to England. But he came over and was honest about wanting to evolve as a player. He also said there was more emphasis on strength and conditioning, recovery and mobility over in England. I thought he might have a stereotypical French attitude and be quite laid back but he totally committed, even to the drills I thought might not be his cup of tea. He proved me wrong and for the better as well. You don’t see many French players of his status coming over to the English league. The more the merrier, I say.”
Wood, set for a place in the backrow with Chris Robshaw and others unavailable, is also wary of the visitors in general. “French teams are full of dangerous players. I would never underestimate them. They’re a quality side and they seem to be regaining some of that French flair and playing with ambition again.”
Either way, a heavy-duty contest looks certain, with the attrition rate among backrow forwards showing little sign of easing. Wood is no shrinking violet but, even with reduced tackle heights, he believes the contemporary game is more intense than ever. “It feels like a different sport to when I started. It’s always been a tough game and I’ve always played hard but the rate of collisions these days is unbelievable.
“You want it to be fierce and competitive, you want that level of attrition. That’s part of what I pride myself on and that’s how I like it but it is difficult to back it up week after week. Everyone’s due their injury and you have to take it as it comes.”