By Karen Gasbarino
Rugby Photos courtesy James Fitchew: www.jamesfitchewphotography.co.uk
Serious rugby supporters in North America will know key names involved in the sport from across the globe. Most who even passively follow test rugby or Premiership Rugby in the UK will know many of the names on the England squad. For the knowledgeable rugby fan, it was big news when Ben Foden, formerly of the Northampton Saints in England, crossed the pond to join Major League Rugby’s year-two expansion team Rugby United New York.
If you know who Foden is – and the impact he had on both the Saints and England squad – then you might also know a player who traveled in many of the same circles as Foden: Tom Wood. Wood, 32, has played with the Saints just shy of a decade, has 50 caps for England (also having captained the side), and been part of two England World Cup Campaigns.
This is a seasoned professional who has played the oval ball since he was a lad, honing his skills as a flanker/8 man. He has played around the world and is as humble and grateful as one who is appreciative for the opportunities the sport has offered.
He’s a thinking-man’s player who mapped out the path of his journey with precision: Wood planned his move to North Otago in New Zealand in his late teens. He explains. “I was playing a pretty high level at schools rugby and had been selected for England U18s and Worcester Academy, and spent a couple of very beneficial years in that environment. However, I decided that the best ‘rugby university’ I could attend would be New Zealand as they have long set the standard. Lots of players go into the academy system, but only a few make it to the other side. I wanted to do something a little different and something that might give me an edge. It was also a challenge of living alone on the other side of the world – and I always say that I left a boy and returned a man.”
Upon returning from New Zealand in 2007, Wood went back to the Worcester Warriors for three seasons and 64 appearances before making the move to Northampton, where he was fortunate to enjoy some great success with the squad – including player of the year in 2011. As Captain, he hoisted both the European Cup and Premiership Trophy.
Now years later, at this stage in his career with the Saints, it would seem logical to think that Wood might be thinking about a testimonial year. But there’s reluctance. “There have been some early discussions with the club, friends, and my agent about a possible testimonial,” Wood offers. “I’m not sure whether I’ll proceed and if I do, how it might look.” But, he adds, “the concept has never really sat that well with me and I’m much happier concentrating on playing.” Makes sense considering the profile; hunting and woodworking are solo pursuits for those who enjoy the solitude of their surroundings, not generally into the idea of being center of attention. A testimonial year seems counter-intuitive for a man like Tom Wood.
These solo pursuits are how Wood stays grounded. For the past several years he’s been perfecting his rugby game while also honing a craft of a different kind: woodworking. What started as a hobby borne of an innate love of the outdoors evolved into more as Wood became more “comfortable in rugby” in his mid-20’s.
Now, it’s looking as though it may be a logical post-rugby step for Wood who is “now in the process of formalising the business and attempting to format it as an option” once he hangs up the boots, though he’s not planning to stop playing just yet.
Wood’s into everything outdoors from “fishing, shooting, archery, woodwork, tree surgery, welding, trucks, and off-roading (to name a few),” but concedes that “the woodworking is my strongest area.” That said, he’s also a qualified tree surgeon and does “jobs in my spare time to gain experience.”
His ‘Wood By Name’ woodworking pieces are “unique or at least bespoke. Mostly one-off pieces” as Wood explains. He enjoys the evolution of the project from slab of wood to finished product, and finds that it gives him a “welcome distraction when needed.” He also admitted it’s a great fit with his rugby career so he can maintain balance and the ability to perform on the pitch.
The question needs posing: does a stalwart such as Tom Wood still have the England shirt on his mind? Of the potential for him to be called up to the World Cup in Japan, Wood offers a practical view into the possibility. “I am probably a couple of steps removed from the England rugby team at the moment. Having said that, I believe Eddie Jones and the coaches know they can trust me to step straight in if needed, and if fit I will always be available, staying in shape ready to go at a moments’ notice.” Wood adds with the characteristic realism he embodies: “Injuries occur in tough World Cup camps, and whilst I don’t wish them on anybody, stranger things have happened, so I’ve not given up altogether.” It would be good to see Wood make another appearance wearing the rose.
Stepping back to the thoughts of a post-rugby career and any advice that Tom Wood could offer, he is again incredibly pragmatic and thoughtful. He doesn’t feel equipped to offer younger players advice, instead saying that “everyone is different and may think about it differently at different stages of their career.
“For example, the smart advice to a young academy player might be to have a Plan B, stay in school, do a degree in your spare time because only a few make it – and even if you’re one of them you’re one bad injury away from being without a job. But I didn’t do that. I took my mindset from a Will Smith rap: “NO Plan-B it distracts from Plan-A”. I threw everything I had into making it as a rugby player, confident that I could, and if the worst was to happen, I would simply recalibrate and do something else.” Typical response from a player who as a young man went to New Zealand with no guarantees but a solid belief in his ability to make it happen. It’s that general outlook that helps a player enjoy a career that is 15 years strong.
Having the privilege and opportunity to speak to an overseas player I always ask what they might be hearing about how Major League Rugby is impacting the rugby world. Wood candidly admits that there isn’t much buzz about our league, but that he does see the social media posts of Alex Corbisiero and Ben Foden, both former colleagues from Northampton Saints and England. Wood says his teammates look to be enjoying themselves and that it’s evident from their posts that the MLR appears to be gaining momentum. “I think you’ll find more and more players from European and the Southern Hemisphere teams looking to head your way to grow the game and experience life over there,” he says.
As a rugby supporter who has followed Tom Wood’s career, I certainly hope he continues for the next while carving it up on the pitch in a Saints jersey – and maybe one last time an England one. That said, it will be interesting to follow his career in woodworking as well, as he carves it up in new and creative ways with his woodworking pursuits.
Wood’s Instagram feed is worth the follow to see what he’s got on the go, including joint projects with fellow Saintsman Alex Waller, who is also a woodworker.
Check Tom’s craft out on Instagram at @woodbyname.