England prepare for Welsh exam
"A lot of labouring, a lot of hard work like chopping wood and fetching and carrying."
England's new cap Tom Wood was explaining how he earned a crust during his spell living in New Zealand, but he may as well have been predicting the job he'll have to do in Cardiff this Friday night.
With two days to go until the opening salvo in this season's Six Nations, England have unveiled their troops. At the head of the charge will be new skipper Mike Tindall, on the flank the unheralded Wood.
The 24-year-old new boy might be advised not to dwell too much on the experience of the last England player to make his international debut in the fixture. At 6' 5" and over 16 stone he's unlikely to suffer the same physical fate as Mathew Tait did at Gavin Henson's hands back in 2005, but the atmosphere and intensity will provide a mental barrage all of their own.
Manager Martin Johnson is convinced he can come through unscathed. "Sometimes a young player comes in and they don't realise how good a player they are," he said at England's training headquarters in Bagshot on Wednesday. "He's one of those players who impresses you with everything he does. He has spoken well when he has had to, and his understanding and knowledge of the game is very good."
Perhaps Johnson sees something of himself in Wood. If he does, it's not entirely accidental. Wood decided to swap the Worcester academy for a less orthodox schooling in that rugby-obsessed corner of the world in part because a young Johnson had done exactly the same.
Will Wood cut Wales down to size in Cardiff on Friday? Picture: PA
"I'd read his book, and I was aware of a few things he'd done over there," says Wood, selected at blind-side with James Haskell at seven and Nick Easter at eight. "Obviously it worked well for him, so I thought, why not?
"I wanted to break the mould a bit from just coming through the academy. I felt like I was progressing well, but I wanted to be in the real world and play some rugby. I found it a real good experience in life as well as rugby; I went out a boy and came back a man.
"I was Tom the Pom from the start, and the abuse was coming in from all angles. I worked full time and managed my training around that, and came on leaps and bounds.
"I think sometimes over here in academies it becomes the norm to become a professional rugby player, and I wanted to go back to the old days - there were guys out there who would work all day on the farm and then run over hot coals to make the Tuesday night training session. I wanted to get that back in my game: that real desire to play rugby."
Hot coals might be preferable to the scorching reception Wood and his team-mates can expect on Friday night.
Over a third of the starting England XV have never experienced a Six Nations match in the Millennium Stadium. For some that might not feel like a problem - when you've played Australia down under, as Ben Youngs and Shontayne Hape have, or faced France in a Grand Slam denouement like Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Dan Cole, you have come through two of rugby's tougher tests.
But there is intimidation and noise, and then there is Cardiff when England come to town. The clash two years ago was the most violent thing Valentine's Day has seen since Capone's goons put their tommy-guns away, a battering, brutal collision that rattled the teeth even of those in the upper tier of the North Stand.
Johnson was trying to keep it simple on Wednesday. "When you walk out at the Millennium Stadium in front of a big crowd, you're still playing on a rectangle of grass." He also insisted that Tindall would have been his skipper regardless of who or where England were playing.
It's probably true. It's also entirely apposite that a player as grizzled and obdurate as Tindall will be at the forefront on such an occasion.
The old stager, who shared the podium in Sydney with Johnson after the World Cup win in 2003, is the most experienced man left standing in the England ranks. Friday will bring his 67th cap. At the same time this will be only the second time he has started a Six Nations match in Cardiff in his 11-year international career, having missed out in '03, '05 and '07 and only come on as a replacement in '01.
Some critics don't think he has the pace any more to cut it at the very top level. Others would say he never did, and ask how much harm that ever did him.
Johnson has always said that he picks the team first and captain second. In that case, Tindall's detractors will have to live with the sight of him in an England jersey for a while yet.
England will look to the experience of Tindall and Wilkinson, who is on the bench, in Cardiff. Picture: AP
Dogged by almost as many injuries since becoming a world champion as his team-mate Jonny Wilkinson, Tindall is likely to relish every bone-crunching collision. Since Wales have picked a 33-stone combination of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies to run straight at him and Hape, it's probably just as well.
His connections to the Royal Family are well known, his marriage to Zara Phillips due to follow that of her cousin William. He may find this earlier engagement with the prints of Wales leaves a few more stud-marks.
If Tindall owes his promotion to the injury sustained by Lewis Moody, Johnson is not alone in having to make emergency repairs to his first-choice XV. The loss of Lions props Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones is arguably a bigger loss to Warren Gatland and Wales than Moody, Tom Croft and Courtney Lawes to England.
Even then, and with Wales coming off the back of just two wins from 12 in 2010, it is still a mighty hard match to call, as close on paper as the respective head-to-head records between the two - England 54 wins, Wales 53.
Just as last year, when England took advantage of Alun Wyn Jones's yellow card to kick-start their Six Nations campaign with a 30-17 victory, the fact that such a big match comes so early could have a defining effect on the campaign.
Wales never regained the momentum lost by that defeat in the opener at Twickenham, just as their remarkable 26-19 win in south-west London back in 2008 launched them towards the Grand Slam. If they can make it four wins in a row over England at home, the despondency of autumn may yet give way to a winter of content. Should England secure their first win in Cardiff since 2003, the three matches they have at Twickenham to come will lead to whispers of a Grand Slam to match.
For now, it is a time for stout hearts and deep breaths. "I'm a little bit anxious, but I just want to get out there now," admitted Wood.
"Away in Wales, with the us against them feeling and the roof going over and the noise going up those extra few decibels... I'll just try to remember what has got me here, which is hard graft. I don't know any other way than to get stuck in."