England debutant Tom Wood has been backed to rise to the occasion in tonight’s RBS 6 Nations opener with Wales (7.45pm).
Wood was not included in England’s original 33-man squad but he has been promoted from the Saxons straight into the starting XV after injuries forced manager Martin Johnson to reshuffle his pack.
Johnson has steeled his young squad for the most hostile atmosphere they will experience anywhere in the championship. But the England’s head coach had no qualms in throwing flanker Wood in at the deep end.
And Northampton boss Jim Mallinder expects his club player to thrive.
‘It’s a tough place to go and play on a Friday night but knowing Tom and the type of player he is, it won’t be a problem for him,’ he said.
‘I expect him to do very well.’
The build-up to the 6 Nations curtain-raiser has been dominated by Warren Gatland’s critical comments aimed at England hooker Dylan Hartley.
Hartley’s disciplinary record means he has long been used to having his temperament questioned.
The combative Northampton captain is well aware that Gatland – the Wales boss – was trying to provoke him and he has vowed to use the jibes as ammunition.
‘If anything it’s given me 10 days to really prepare myself and 10 days to really motivate myself,’ he said.
England cannot afford another suspension, with Dave Attwood and Delon Armitage currently banned, but Johnson backed Hartley to keep his emotions in check.
‘This is a guy who has led a Northampton team who are unbeaten in Europe and near the top of the Premiership.
‘He is having a good year and this will be a good test for him.’