Wood is fired up as Johnson is released
Tom Wood yesterday delivered a stirring battle cry for England just days before they face the ultimate "man test" against South Africa at Twickenham.
Wood is fired up for what is expected to be his first England start since recovering from the foot injury which kept him on the sidelines for eight months after the 2011 World Cup. He is poised to take the place in the pack occupied for this autumn's first two Tests by Exeter Chiefs' Tom Johnson, who was one of 11 players sent back to their clubs last night.
Had Wood been fit when head coach Stuart Lancaster took charge, the Northampton flanker may have been England's captain going into Saturday's showdown with the ferocious Springboks.
Wood sounded every inch the leader yesterday as he passionately demanded that England meet South Africa's physical challenge head on.
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"It's not going to be a surprise, what's coming. It's going to be a tough physical challenge. It's us against them," Wood said.
"James Haskell, who has experienced playing in the Super 15, says that playing South Africans is like a man test. They look at you, they look for your biggest guy and get theirs to run at him as hard as he can to see who comes out on top.
"If you do show any fear and if you do back off to any extent, you've got a long day at the office. You have to match it head on and make that early low tackle. If one of them comes charging in, teeth gritted, full of rage and gets his legs lassoed on the gain line, spills the ball or gets turned over, then that has a big negative effect on them.
"The physical challenge that is coming our way at the weekend is the type of game I love playing, anyway. I'm very combative.
"I'm not the biggest person physically in the world but I'm combative and abrasive and I like to get stuck in. This challenge that South Africa present is exactly the type I enjoy – and it's going to be at the highest level."
England were bullied by the Springboks in the first two Tests of their summer tour but responded courageously to earn a 14-14 draw in Port Elizabeth. They need to show the same resolve this weekend as they aim to bury the dismay of last Saturday's 20-14 defeat to Australia, when they were bossed at the breakdown.
"We've got to remind the team of Port Elizabeth. There was a fighting spirit in that game," England defence coach Andy Farrell said.
"We took our defensive game to them and that is how it has got to be this weekend."
England have been developing a dynamic game-plan that puts an emphasis on avoiding contact, and finding the right selection balance will be a key factor for them.
England are having to decide, for example, between the attacking promise of Jonathan Joseph and the defensive solidity of Brad Barritt in the centre. Lancaster will confirm his starting line-up tomorrow.
As well as Johnson, number eight Thomas Waldrom and wing Charlie Sharples have been dropped from Lancaster's 23-man match squad despite starting against Australia.
Loosehead prop Joe Marler has been ruled out with a knee ligament injury, opening the way for Alex Corbisiero's return after overcoming a knee injury of his own.
Haskell and Ben Morgan have both been included in the match squad for the first time this autumn, while Joseph has taken Sharples' place in the match squad after shaking off an ankle injury.
Lancaster said: "We have made some changes this week to freshen up the squad. Unfortunately that means one or two players miss out who were in the match-day squad against Australia. But they have all added value with their contributions in training and the games, and I'm sure they will be looking to play well for their clubs and force their way back in." Johnson is expected to feature for the Chiefs in Sunday's Aviva Premiership game at London Irish.