As England were winning approval for an heroic autumn defeat to New Zealand, Tom Wood nursed a sense of grievance at a painful result and a baffling response.
Wood refused to console himself with the detail of a match that saw a 17-3 deficit courageously transformed into a 22-20 lead, until a moment of genius from Ma’a Nonu saved the All Blacks. It was viewed as a rousing climax to last November’s QBE Internationals, but the ensuing praise sat uneasily with Wood as he digested what he regarded as a failure.
England open the 2014 RBS Six Nations against France in Paris this evening, and the Northampton flanker views only victory in every game as acceptable.
“I was a little bit annoyed after the game,” said Wood, sporting a black eye sustained during a training-ground collision with Tom Johnson. “There was a feeling among the media and fans that it had been a gutsy effort. People thought we’d tried hard and given the world champions a run for their money, but that we’d finished where we should have finished which was second. I wasn’t happy with that. I was frustrated.
“As a team we’re in a good place now where we’re not just trying to win, we’re expecting to win. To come off and accept a loss isn’t in my nature or this team’s nature.”
England enter the Six Nations as second favourites behind Wales, who have been told by their head coach Warren Gatland to adopt a “strut” as they negotiate the Championship.
“I don’t really care how the Welsh walk. We don’t get caught up in any of that. We’re not about strutting,” Wood said. “Our confidence comes from within. We train very hard, we expect a lot from each other and we hold each other accountable.
“We put the hours in on the training ground, in the gym, in the meeting room and everywhere else. That’s where out inner confidence comes from. We don’t have to give off any vibes.”
While England have been treated with a degree of leniency in the first two years of Stuart Lancaster’s reign as head coach, a sense of urgency in their quest for silverware has developed inside and outside the camp.
Successive second-place finishes in the Six Nations, losing only to Wales on both occasions, have increased the hunger to win the Championship as the countdown to the 2015 World Cup continues. “We definitely want something to show for all our efforts. We’re going to approach every game expecting to win it and preparing like we’re going to win it. We’ve got the talent,” Wood said.
England will blood uncapped backs Luther Burrell and Jack Nowell at the Stade de France, while Jonny May will be winning only his second cap on the left wing.
Wood states what is expected of the trio and has also braced them for a ferocious onslaught. “There are no allowances. They are coming into a pretty established team and a culture and environment that demands high standards. They are very aware of that – we’ve had that conversation,” he said.
“France have some very talented players and some big strong men. They have a very powerful pack and we’re going to have to meet it head on. We may have to weather a storm early on but we intend to bring our own fire. We’re not going to concern ourselves with that too much; we’ll do our best to get our own game out there on the field.”
France head coach Philippe Saint-Andre, meanwhile, insists the post-2011 World Cup rebuilding phase is over as he targets a critical victory over England.
Les Bleus, struggling from the number of overseas players competing in their domestic league, have won only two of their last 11 matches and finished last season’s Championship bottom of the table.
Saint-Andre insists that while there has been sympathy for France as they seek to establish a settled line-up, it will soon run out unless they start winning. “This match is huge for us because we need to start the Six Nations with a win,” Saint-Andre said. “England performed well last year, while 2013 was very, very disappointing for us. But we knew it would be difficult with so many new players. The French public love the French team. They understand. But they also want success, so it’s time for us to win some games. And we always say, ‘If you beat England then your international season is not so bad’. So it’s huge for us.”
France have won the Six Nations in each year after the last four British and Irish Lions tours, but Saint-Andre insists the Top 14 demands even more of his players. “I hope that it will be the same this year as in the previous four times,” he said. “My experience, from having worked in England, is that after players have played for the Lions they have less preparation time than normal. They do not have the six weeks as normal. But for us it’s like we have the Lions each year because we only have ten or 12 days’ maximum of preparation.
“Our guys play 40 games each year. The structure of the Top 14 means you can’t go against this. It’s just that in the year of the Lions they have a few weeks less in pre-season.”