- Wood has topped the stats in this year's RBS Six Nations
- England need to keep a cool head in Cardiff says back row
Tom Wood is a name the statisticians in the England camp know all too well. Since his man-of-the-match performance against New Zealand last December, in which he hit 39 rucks, Wood has gone on to top the breakdown and tackle stats on a regular basis throughout this year’s RBS 6 Nations.
The 26-year-old’s consistency has been a major factor in England going into Saturday’s match against Wales as the only unbeaten side in the competition and on course for their first Grand Slam since 2003.
While being a back row lends itself to high work rates, Wood’s stats in this year’s tournament are exactly what Head Coach Stuart Lancaster would want to see from his utility back row. Wood hit the most number of breakdowns against Scotland, Ireland and Italy and has averaged 18 tackles a match, topping the numbers in three out of the four games.
More than the numbers
Against Wales though, Wood is set to face one of his biggest challenges yet and while the stats speak volumes about his performances so far, the Northampton Saint says it’s more than just a numbers game.
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“The danger with the modern game and stats that come with it, there’s always somebody dishing out stats and it can become competitive and although that’s good in a way as it drives work rate and intensity in players, if you go looking for those sort of things it can be counter-productive. If I am hitting too many rucks I may not be doing the ball carrying I need to do, or hitting wrong, rucks may or may not be needed and wasting a bullet, so to speak.
“It’s the same with tackling. If you are running round like a headless chicken trying to tackle everybody often you leave holes in defensive line and things like that, so it’s crucial to stay calm and stick within your structure and obviously bring a huge amount of energy and work rate to that. In these fast games like against Wales, the tackles and rucks will come to you and as long as you are there willing to hit them you will get the stats that way.”
Wood’s caution may be due to the modest nature of the back row, the quiet workhorse who has said in the past he is “at his happiest” when in the middle of a breakdown and out of view. But his ferocity is unquestionable and against the likes of Wales, players such as Wood will need to perform if England are to get five wins from five.
And he knows exactly what it’s like to play against the Welsh at the Millennium Stadium, having made his debut in England’s 26-19 win over Wales in 2011. With 17 caps to his name, Wood now has a more experienced head on him and has been keen to pass on his knowledge to the up-and-coming players taking to the turf in Cardiff at the weekend.
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“The atmosphere in the Millennium Stadium was incredible because the seats are right on top of you. The roof was on back in 2011, the fireworks going off around the anthems, bands and whatnot all on the pitch, I couldn’t hear myself think. I was worried about being able to relay calls backwards and forwards as I couldn’t hear the guy next to me making the simplest of calls.
“There’s a lot going on on a rugby field, a lot of communication and that is a vital part of the game. I was stressing a little bit in the warm-up on how we were going to operate in that environment but luckily as the game kicks off you get used to it and the crowd dies down a little bit as there is less sideshow and everyone’s concentrating on the rugby.
“I have tried to relay that to the rest of the lads, prepare them going in for the game as some lads haven’t played in Cardiff yet but this group of boys is pretty humble, hard-working and won’t be affected by that.”
Time to answer the critics
England’s perfect record in this year’s tournament has not been without criticism, though. Against Italy a number of missed opportunities created a tense match that pushed the English defence to its limits. However, Lancaster’s relatively inexperienced side are still unbeaten in five and although Wood says the team view it as a huge achievement, they are going to have to keep their heads against the Welsh if they are to continue their winning run.
“Aggression is a big part of any game and I have said before, the bigger the occasion the simpler it becomes in many ways. You have to get your basics right and not get carried away with the sense of occasion, while being on the edge, as everyone will be because of the occasion and atmosphere.
“It’s easy to give daft, easy penalties away: be too over exuberant, have hands in rucks, be slightly offside, jump out of line – it’s vital we stay calm in that environment.
“But as Toby [Flood] said, a big part of our game and big part of building this team is aggression, particularly in defence and breakdown. I think we have gone away from it slightly in the last couple of weeks. We haven’t quite implemented it as well as we would like a couple of times. We really want to get that speed off the line and low tackle focus, and fly in and blitz rucks and that sort of horizontal approach to the ruck, get low early and blitz past the ball. We don’t want to give the likes of [Justin] Tipuric and [Sam] Warburton a shot at the ball, that’s going to be vital for us.”
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The battle with Tipuric and Warburton is being touted as one of the key match-ups in the game, a game-decider in the eyes of much of the media. Captain Chris Robshaw, the returning Tom Croft and Wood are going to have to nullify the threat of the Welsh duo, as well as No. 8 Toby Faletau. The added pressure of the British & Irish Lions selection, which will be chosen by Welsh coach Warren Gatland (who has stepped aside for interim coach Rob Howley in this year’s tournament) will also make for an exciting clash and Wood knows people will be expecting a performance from the English back row.
“They have played to their strengths and have got those guys available and they know our breakdown has been a huge positive for us in recent weeks, especially against New Zealand and Scotland. It’s something they are going to look to slow us down.
“We have got a good line out and if they don’t compete as well at source they will try and compete in midfield. They will have huge emphasis on stopping our big ball carriers and trying to slow the ball down and take momentum out of the game. That’s something conversely that we will have to focus on and it will just be a war of attrition on who is going to get the edge.”
“It [to beat Wales] would be a huge scalp and a huge moment in time for this team, who have come an awful long way. Personally, having missed out on one a couple of years ago it will for some extent put that one to bed and right that wrong for me personally – not many in this team carry that baggage.
“We are pretty positive going into the game and we are really looking at the game in its own right and just on its own individual merit. We are not getting carried away with the occasion and everything else, we are reverting back to process and detail focusing on all those things and hoping that the game will take care of itself.”