Saints hero Wood will treat derby day as if it's his last
For the man who is pretty much Saints’ Mr Derby Day, Friday night is set to be another emotional occasion.
Because with the clock ticking down on his incredible career, Tom Wood knows, if selected, this may be the final time he gets to turn out at Welford Road for Saints.
Wood was set to retire at the end of last season as his contract was due to expire and there appeared to be no indication that it would be renewed.
But a last-minute deal was put together for him to remain at the Gardens for another year.
Now, Wood faces a similar position to the one he was in at the same stage in 2021, preparing himself mentally for the prospect of hanging up his boots this summer.
If he does, he knows this will be the final chance to face up to Saints’ old foes in a fixture that Wood has thrived in for so many years.
He savours the fire and desire of it all and he has scored one of the most memorable of Northampton tries against Leicester.
Back in May 2014, Wood stepped up to score for 14-man Saints in the dying embers of a Gallagher Premiership play-off semi-final.
Tigers were stunned as their title hopes faded and Saints fans celebrated like they had never celebrated before as their ticket to Twickenham was booked.
The black, green and gold would go on to win their first, and so far only, Premiership title later that month, and Wood’s name was etched into the history books.
The try was made even more incredible by the fact that Wood later revealed he had moved house earlier that day before summoning every ounce of energy he had to topple Tigers.
And now he would love to do it one more time at Welford Road this week as he continues to savour every single experience that comes his way.
“I want to get selected and I don’t want to take anything for granted but with Lewis (Ludlam) and Courtney (Lawes) away and the pressure we’re under with Covid at the moment, I might just be last man standing in terms of selection,” Wood said.
“I built it up in my mind in the same way last year because it was almost a certainty that it would be my last (derby day) as I was retired in my head.
“It was only very late in the season where things changed within the club, an opportunity arose, I was playing well, I felt fit and it seemed the natural thing to go another year.
“Who knows, maybe that will happen this year, but I’m operating on the basis that it won’t and I’m making sure I do make the most of it.
“I don’t want to lay it on too thick with the lads because I can’t do it every year.
“I might go on for another 10 years, we’ll see!”
But Wood is certainly not looking 10 years into the future. His only focus is on Friday night.
“I’m just trying to enjoy it,” said the 35-year-old.
“I’m assuming this is my last season until someone tells me otherwise.
“Every game I play at the moment, I’m thinking ‘this might be my last time I play’.
“I was thinking at Worcester (Wood’s former club) a couple of weeks ago that it might be the last time I play at Sixways and I really wanted to play at Racing because of that stadium and everything. The disappointment of missing that was palpable.
“Each time we go into a week, my motivation is ‘it might be the last time I play here’ and that’s a reality.
“I’ve got that bubbling under the surface and I try to be real and philosophical about it - you’ve got to retire at some point - but in the moment, week to week, I try to make every week count and enjoy it for what it is.
“To miss out on selection now or to play badly is to miss out on a huge percentage of what’s left of my career.
“It might be the last time I play at Worcester or at Welford Road or have a chance for a famous victory or key moment.
“Soaking it up and getting the results is really important to me.
“I’ve never taken my rugby for granted, I’ve always tried to apply that but this puts it to the forefront of my mind in what might be my last six months.”
Wood has shown that he still has much to offer Saints, and he was one of their key performers during the 29-13 success at Worcester last time out.
“We talked about it being the second half of the season, a fresh start and wanting to start it well,” Wood said, reflecting on the bonus-point win against the Warriors, who he left to join Saints in 2010.
“It was an important five points but there was an awful lot we were frustrated with, in that second half in particular.
“The changing room was a bit mixed in terms of emotions and there was a lot of frustration.
“We caused ourselves a lot of stress that we didn’t need to.
“We went into panic and stress mode and didn’t really enjoy the second half - we didn’t get what we wanted out of the second half so there is lots to learn.
“But we’ll take the five points every day of the week.”
Saints have won eight of their 13 league games to date and are very much in the Premiership play-off picture.
“Boydy (Saints boss Chris Boyd) normally describes it as a pass mark,” Wood said.
“I don’t think we’ve got anything to be too excited about so far.
“Hopefully we’re building nicely and hopefully we can peak at the right time, which isn’t the worst thing.
“It’s tough for a team like Leicester who have won so many games and it’s difficult to sustain that.
“We’ve been in that position previously. You finish the league on top and then lose in the semi-final and it feels like a nightmare.
“So hopefully we can build nicely, make sure we’re in and around that top four and get ourselves in a position to challenge come the end.”
Saints have lost to Leicester already this season, suffering a sobering 55-26 defeat at the Gardens back in October.
So do they really have what it takes to not only tame Tigers but to go all the way this season?
“I 100 per cent believe we’ve got the talent and we’re just starting to see the seeds of the authority growing within the playing group,” Wood said.
“For the past couple of years, we’ve been guilty of being schoolchildren, being dictated to by the coaches.
“We’ve felt like we’ve been very much under the coaches’ guidance and had very little to say for ourselves, but now we’re starting to get hold of the team a bit better.
“The likes of Fraser Dingwall, George Furbank, Alex Mitchell are stepping up and leading, with Lewis (Ludlam), who is away at the minute.
“That youngster who has come through the Academy now can’t be described as a youngster - they’re established players with 50-plus appearances under their belt and they’re starting to grab the reins.
“Myself, Alex (Waller), Courtney (Lawes) and (Dan) Biggar can step back a little bit and allow those guys to start stepping up.”
The responsibility the younger members of Saints’ squad are taking has clearly lifted some of the weight from Wood’s shoulders.
He said: “I enjoy my rugby being able to be a lot more relaxed.
“You can be a bit overwhelmed by the captaincy and the frustration of not getting results week to week.
“To be able to enjoy your rugby and allow those younger guys to have the reins is nice for me.”
Saints are desperate to finally end what is a near eight-year wait for their second Premiership title.
But what does Wood feel they will need to do to achieve that aim this season?
“We’ve got to get a mindset of being in the moment and being next job regardless of scorelines and league tables and what the following week is,” Wood said.
“We’re a little bit guilty of looking a bit far ahead sometimes or worrying about the bigger picture when we actually need to be next-job mentality.
“It’s easy to say that but it’s very much harder to do it.
“We were guilty of it against Worcester and half-time came at the wrong time for us there.
“Having done all the hard work into the wind in the first half, we thought things would come a lot easier in the second half but it just never does.
“You know the other team are getting a massive rev-up in the changing room, you know they’re going to come out all guns blazing and you only have to take your foot off the gas by two per cent and you find yourself in the situation we were.
“We didn’t enjoy the second half at all.
“We just about got the job done but we didn’t play a lot of rugby, we found ourselves under the pump and we got frustrated.
“You could see the stress in everyone in the body language and if you want to be a top four team that challenges for things, you’ve got to be better than that in those moments.”