Ahead of this weekend’s historic clash between Saints and Barbarian FC, we sat down with legendary Northampton back row Tom Wood – who is swapping the Black, Green and Gold jersey for the Black and White hoops of the BaaBaas for a cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens swansong.
Q: Great to see you back Tom, how have you been getting ready for your return to cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens?
TW: I’m not sure about getting ready for the game – if climbing trees and working on my truck is preparation for a full-blooded rugby match, then I guess I’m somewhat prepared! I haven’t done a lot of rugby training, I haven’t touched a rugby ball much and I haven’t been doing the familiar shuttle runs, mauling sessions and tackle technique work that I’m used to. It will be interesting to see how much being ingrained in 20 years of professionalism, and a lifetime of rugby, gets me through after five or six months of doing very little. I’m not fat and out of shape, I’m keeping busy and I’m doing physical work, but I’m not hitting scrums and mauls day in, day out, so it will be a shock to the system, I’m sure, but I’m looking forward to it and it’s a great opportunity for me.
Q: Did you ever think you’d have another opportunity to run out at the Gardens?
TW: I had a good send-off here, and the club looked after me at the end of last season. They put on a bit of a show and we had a good celebration – but unfortunately I didn’t have my boots on, I wasn’t on the pitch. That was one disappointing element of my last week at Saints and professional rugby, because I didn’t get to run around on the pitch as I was still carrying that shoulder injury. It’s nice that, albeit on the opposing team, I get to run out here in front of the fans again and enjoy this place for one last time.
Q: How did the opportunity to play for the BaaBaas in Saturday’s game come about?
TW: It was Northampton who first got in touch. [Chief Executive] Mark Darbon obviously had it in the pipeline, he was in the early stages of prepping it and he put a feeler out to me, saying ‘would you consider it?’ Of course, it’s a great opportunity for me and it was a pretty easy answer! There were a few question marks, like whether I am going to be physically up to it. I’ve not played a lot of rugby since I did my shoulder and I’ve only had a couple of hit-outs; once for the BaaBaas and once in a game where I was playing against members of the public with a few other former players, which was a bit of a novelty. So, to test it in what will be like a full-on game, albeit somewhat of an exhibition game, you’ll be playing against full-time professionals that have got points to prove. No-one wants to let themselves down; you’re pulling on the famous Barbarians shirt and you’re not going to do anything but give it your all.
Q: So, you’ll be looking to spoil the party then for anyone hoping for a Saints win?
TW: I do need to be physically in the right place, but you’ve got to make sure that you are geared up to give it everything. The last thing I want to do is come out and have a swansong, so to speak, and let myself down or underperform, or give an underwhelming or poor performance. I’ve got to make sure I’m in the right place, but I think I’ll answer those questions in my own mind.
Q: Have you missed playing rugby since you retired?
TW: In some ways, but not really on the whole. I feel like I timed it right, I felt like it was my time to move on and I felt like I had lots of stuff going on outside of rugby. I haven’t really had time to sit down and dwell on anything, or be twiddling my thumbs wishing I was here. I’ve always been busy having the next project to get into. Having said that, I’ve been down at the Gardens a bit and I haven’t just walked away and forgotten about rugby. I’m still connected to the club; I still have a few roles to play on matchdays and I’ve still been down here supporting the boys – my team-mates and my business partner [Alex Waller] are all still here. I’m still actively involved and I’ve come down to watch the games when the fireworks go off, the music starts and the boys run out for kick-off, that kind of gets the blood pumping still and there’s a big part of me that sits in the stand and thinks ‘I could still be out there and I probably should be’, but that’s about as fleeting as it gets. I’ve also sat in the Crooked Hooker with the boys on a Tuesday – which is their big day where they’re doing double rugby sessions, heavy lifts, lots of meetings. Hearing them all moaning about how long the schedule is on those days makes me glad I’m on this side of the fence!
Q: Will it be nice to be on the same team as your old Saints team-mate Luther Burrell again?
TW: Yeah, there are some interesting characters in this Barbarians squad, most of whom I haven’t played with before, so I’m looking forward to just having a run-out – and sharing a pitch with Luther again will be brilliant. It’s been a while, but some of our best days in Saints and England shirts were alongside each other, so that will be great.
Q: What club socks will you be wearing on Saturday?
TW: I haven’t 100 per cent decided. When I played for the BaaBaas in the summer, I wore one Northampton sock and one Barkers Butts sock, which was my mini and junior club in Coventry. I think I’ll be representing the Saints Foundation this time – I’m still an ambassador here, so I’ll try and get some of their colours into the kit. I might try and do something similar and where one of each again and represent somebody else. I am tempted to go with Bugbrooke, even though I’ve never actually played for them, but that’s my boy’s club and I do coach there.
Q: What is the usual day-to-day life for Tom Wood now you’re no longer playing?
It’s a bit scattergun at the minute, to be honest. I am really busy, but I’m busy with something different each day, which is kind what I wanted it to be. Everyone knows I do my woodwork, and stuff like that, and I make anything from coasters and chopping boards to myself and Alex doing the bespoke custom-built resin tables, and so on. It could be anything from a £10 order up to something like a 15 or 20-round furniture package. If I was in the workshop making coasters every day, I’m pretty sure I’d be struggling mentally with that after a few weeks. Climbing trees and doing the tree surgery stuff is great fun and it keeps me fit and active, but if you’re doing it in all weathers at all hours of the day, trying to earn a crust, it can probably drag you down a little bit as well.
To be able to jump from one to the other is great, and the same goes for being able to pop down to the odd dinner in London or corporate hospitality event, or being down here at the Gardens at the weekend. I also coach my boy and the girls at NSB and Bugbrooke Rugby Club. I’m darting around all over the place and doing various projects that I’ve had on hold. It’s keeping it interesting for me, but I am manic busy and I’m learning how to operate a diary that I haven’t had to operate for the last 20 years, run a schedule and try not to let anybody down. I’m learning to manage how much work I can physically do in a week – I’m struggling to get a full grip on it, but I’m getting there.
Q: Is it going to feel strange coming up against Saints after playing for them for 12 years?
TW: I’m not sure if it will or not, time will tell, I guess. I’m looking forward to playing against some of my old mates – I’m going to get on to Phil Dowson and make sure he hopefully puts Alex Waller and Mike Haywood, and their like, out on the pitch. Selection will be interesting because they’ve got a season to prep for and this game, where it fits into their plans, how they utilise it, whether it’s a chance to give youngsters a run or guys returning from injury. Whether it’s pretty close to a Premiership team, I don’t know, so it will be interesting to see who they pick, but it would be nice to see Alex Waller and Mike Haywood, and guys I spent most of my time alongside, and have one last shot at those guys.