- Tom Wood talks about a year playing in New Zealand as an 18-year-old
- “I grew up a lot. It was the making of me as a player” – Wood
“I mucked in with the lads and they taught me how to do it – taught me how to lead it as well, which was quite unusual being a Pom and all. They actually did it for me when I left. I was stood in the middle of the big, old-fashioned school building while the whole school did it for me. I was quite emotional about that.”
There are a myriad of reasons why Tom Wood bristles with anticipation at the prospect of returning to New Zealand this June, notwithstanding the chance to face a formidable rugby nation on their own soil – where they not have lost a Test match since September 2009.
And up there on the list is the opportunity to “see some of the faces” of the people who took him into their community and bestowed honours such as teaching him their hallowed school haka.
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As a gangly 18-year-old with a shock of blond hair, the 28-Test England flanker took the step of leaving the academy programme at Worcester Warriors to play a season in Otago on the South Island.
While Martin Johnson – who was thrust into New Zealand’s Under 21 side after a period playing for King Country on the North Island – stands as a notable peer, leaving the security of a structured professional pathway was a bold, unusual move.
But therein lies Wood’s motivation. In no way is he critical of the way Worcester moulded him as a rugby player and “got him to where he is today”. Indeed, he feels the regimented training and weights sessions of academy life engender discipline, determination and commitment.
Anyone who has seen the 27-year-old on the field or engaged in conversations off it will know that those are qualities he innately possesses, in droves. Wood was searching for something different, as he explains.
“I felt I needed more game time out there on the field, especially against men,” says the Northampton Saints man. “That was a challenge as an 18-year-old, particularly with some of the Polynesians down there, but I felt that was the making of me as a player.
“I turned up and got off the plane on the Thursday afternoon and went and trained that evening, pretty jet-lagged. I had a run around and I could not believe the skill levels of what I was told was a very local, amateur level, a first stepping-stone into where I was hoping to go.
“The pace of the game, the flair they had in that session was unbelievable. I put the fact that I was off the pace to jet-lag and told myself I’d be better next week.
Photo: RFU Archive
“I was sat on the bench for my first game that Saturday and they scored one of the best tries I have ever seen; I was sat there with my jaw on the floor thinking blimey, never mind the North Otago team, I’m not even going to make this local team, which was Valley in Oamaru.
“It was their ability to play with the ball and guys that weren’t huge physical specimens among some very big Polynesians still being able to ride tackles, take the ball to the line and make good decisions.”
Wood ultimately achieved his objective, fervently making his name for Valley and being selected for North Otago in the National Provincial Championship Two, before winning a place back in the Warriors’ set-up when he returned to England a year later.
But that is only half the story. In an all-encompassing drive to become the best player he could be, Wood took an enormous amount from the edifying rugby and work life he was immersed in.
Managing a variety of full-time jobs while playing rugby – from labouring on farms and building projects to store managing a big-chain shop and working in the aforementioned school – was a new experience and reinvigorated his love of the game. Rugby became his release, his escape from day-to-day working life, his chance to do something he cared about entirely for its own sake.
He said: “I had to be very intrinsically motivated and push myself to go to the gym because there were no structured sessions – I had to work and earn my own money as well as play my rugby.
“I guess what I wanted to get that back in my game. In an academy where you’re a young lad and you’re given all this fancy kit and a structure to work to day-in day-out, to some extent it can become a chore, it can become a job and I don’t like seeing rugby as that. It’s still a passion for me, it’s still something I enjoy doing because I love it.
“Over there, much like amateur rugby over here, you work all day and then rugby is your outlet. You train Tuesday and Thursday night and play Saturday and you look forward to it and you have a beer afterwards. It’s your get-away from your daily grind but when it’s your job and you do it every day, your perspective changes I suppose.”
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Wood was struck by the values which transcend all levels of rugby in New Zealand and the attitude of the people to a young Englishman trying to make his way in the game. If you were passionate about rugby people would go out of their way to help you succeed – Wood became known around the town of Otago simply because of his stated ambition to represent their team.
He continued: “Rugby is part of daily life over there, everybody knows about it. As much as rugby means everything to them and as hard as they prepare and as desperate as they are to win on game day, afterwards it’s very much a togetherness, have a beer with the opposition, let whatever went on on the field stay on the field and enjoy being part of the rugby culture.
“That’s something I really enjoyed as well. As a kid I used to beat myself up a bit if I missed a tackle, didn’t give a pass or dropped a ball. But they would very quickly forgive that if you gave your all on the field, you’d prepared well and thrown your heart and soul into it.
“I think it’s helped me take the edge off. I’m considered to be quite an intense character now and I was even worse as a kid or as a teenager. I think I learnt to control myself a little bit more when I was out in New Zealand.”
Richie McCaw grew up in Oamaru and with Wood living just round the corner, he took the opportunity to run a few laps of the track and get a feel for where the All Blacks captain used to train.
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The exclusive All Blacks club is hugely admired in New Zealand but Wood says their celebrity is coloured by the rugby environment they grew up in. He met Kiwi great Colin Meads – named NZRFU Player of the Century in 1999 – at a black tie dinner and recalls how he conducted himself.
He said: “Colin Meads is an absolute national hero over there but he would hang around, have a beer with you, be very relaxed and would speak to the likes of me who was a complete nobody. He would give you time of day and just be a normal, very good bloke. And there’s a lot to be said for that.
“I felt like I went there as a boy and learnt an awful lot, so it’s great to be able to go back and hopefully show what I’ve become. Hopefully it gives some of the people there that were a part of what I did over there a bit of pride to see me do well too.”