Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Six Nations: Wood tipped to shine on tough debut

England debutant Tom Wood — the Northampton Saints flanker who will face Ulster when the sides meet on April 10 in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup — has been tipped to shine in tonight's RBS 6 Nations opener with Wales in Cardiff (7.45pm).

And it promises to be an interesting night for another Northampton player, too, namely their captain Dylan Hartley, England’s hooker.

Originally Wood was scheduled to play at Ravenhill tonight with England’s Saxons in Belfast to play the Irish Wolfhounds.

The back-row forward was not included in the England seniors’ original 33-man squad. But injuries forced England supremo Martin Johnson to change those plans.

Thus Wood starts at Cardiff ‘s Millennium Stadium, a venue where, Johnson has warned his young flanker, he will experience the most hostile environment of all of the Six Nations grounds.

It promises to be a steep learning curve for the 6ft 5in blindside.

Despite that, Johnson had no misgivings about including Wood and yesterday the player’s Northampton boss, Jim Mallinder — the man who recruited him from Worcester last summer — backed the former World Cup-winning captain’s gamble.

“It's a tough place to go and play on a Friday night, is Cardiff, but knowing Tom and the type of player he is it won't be a problem for him,” Mallinder forecast. “I expect him to do very well.”

Wood, who first linked up with the England squad in the autumn, made an immediate impression on Johnson, not least because of his work ethic and his willing-to-work-and-learn attitude.

Johnson said: “He has |impressed everyone with what he had done on the training field just by his demeanour and his manner.

“He just seemed to say, ‘I’m not here to make the numbers up, I’m here to have a crack'.”

With Tom Croft missing and James Haskell pressed into action on the openside, Wood’s presence at the tail will offer England a very welcome back-row line-out option, something Mallinder stressed.

“He's not an out-and-out six but at the same time he isn't an out and out seven. He brings the qualities of both.

“He is also an excellent jumper in the line-out.”

Meanwhile Welsh coach Warren Gatland's overt criticism of Hartley has done nothing to diffuse things ahead of tonight’s head-to-head.

By highlighting hooker Hartley’s disciplinary record, Gatland cast doubt over the player’s temperament.

The Northampton skipper, who knows this was an attempt to wind him up, has promised to make Gatland eat his words.

“If anything it's given me 10 days to really prepare myself and 10 days to really motivate myself,” said Hartley, who believes he was targeted during Northampton's Heineken Cup games against Cardiff Blues.

There’s history against Welsh opponents, therefore.

But England boss Johnson has warned his fiery hooker that, in trying to make his case tonight, he must not overstep the mark.