Saints star Wood: We can't let the wheels fall off
Less than two years ago, Tom Wood stood in the tunnel at Franklin's Gardens reflecting on a derby day win that kept Saints' season alive.
The next two weeks were to bring silverware for the bearded warrior and his team-mates as they overcame Bath in the Amlin Challenge Cup final and Saracens in the most memorable of Aviva Premiership showpieces at Twickenham.
So how different the mood was after another enthralling east midlands encounter at the Gardens last Saturday.
Just as they did on that balmy May night back in 2014, Saints needed to win to retain any hope of securing the title.
But unlike back then, when Wood’s try sealed one of the most special wins in Northampton history, Saints could not defeat their old foes.
And though it wasn’t a semi-final on this occasion, it was virtually a knock-out blow for Jim Mallinder’s men, who now sit seven points behind Leicester with just two league games to go.
The joy that was etched on Wood’s face a couple of seasons ago was replaced by pain.
But, as ever, he gave an honest appraisal of events, not just during the previous 80 minutes, but during a season that has left he, his team-mates, the coaches and supporters feeling downbeat.
“We’re really hurting,” Wood said. “It was tough to take.
“We really thought we had them, we threw a lot at it but we didn’t quite get the job done.
“I just said to the lads in the dressing room that it hurt, but the season wasn’t just about Saturday.
“It was about going to Worcester, London Irish and Newcastle and the humiliation we had at the Gardens against Wasps.
“We need to have concentration from week to week and we’ve lacked that consistency this year.
“It’s left us in this position.
“We’ll take some pride from the past two weeks, but, ultimately, we’re proud losers at the minute and that’s not what anyone at the club came here to be.
“We’ve got to buck our ideas up.”
So whereas in 2014 Saints were looking forward to a battle with Bath that would ultimately bring them silverware, now they need to beat the west country side next weekend just to remain in the top six.
With Sale Sharks, who are a point behind with a game in hand, and Harlequins, a further point back, breathing down their necks, Saints know they can’t afford any more slip-ups.
And they will have to swallow their pride, pick themselves up and dust themselves down before going all out to beat Bath at the Gardens.
“In the short term it’s all about recovery and freshening up,” Wood said.
“Most people will have a bit of a long weekend and try to down tools for a few days to freshen up mentally and physically.
“Then we’ve got to refocus and that’s what being a professional is all about.
“We’ve got a big home game here and we’ve got to finish the season strongly to make sure we’ve got top level rugby to play next year.
“It hurts and it’s a real shock to your ego to not be competing in the top four and in semi-finals and finals.
“But we absolutely can’t spend the time before the Bath game feeling sorry for ourselves and let the top six slip away.
“We can’t let the wheels fall off, we’ve got to pull tight and make sure we finish the season on a high.”
Wood went as far as saying it would be ‘an absolute tragedy’ if Saints miss out on the top six and a place in the Champions Cup next season.
He has known nothing but top-four finishes since moving to Saints from Worcester Warriors back in the summer of 2010.
And, never one to sugarcoat things, the England man said: “This is the worst season on record since my time at the club.
“It’s the worst outcome we’ve had in seven years and it’s tough to accept that and to take it on the chin.
“I don’t believe it to be a lack of effort.
“I felt like we put a huge amount of effort in, but we haven’t got things right at the crucial moments.
“Some of our concentration has not been good enough.”
That was the case last weekend, as Leicester slipped in for three tries that could, and probably should, have been prevented.
Saints dominated possession and were left frustrated as referee Tim Wigglesworth failed to yellow card any Tigers players.
“When we had chances to apply pressure, I felt they were cracking,” Wood said.
“We had a series of mauls on their line and in their 22 and little things let us down.
“We were throwing a lot of weight forward and the interception (for Vereniki Goneva’s try) was heartbreaking.
“What could have been seven points one way was seven the other.
“They’re tough, but how many times did we get pushed into touch? When you need to build pressure and sustain momentum, things like that kill you.
“We carried really hard but to lose the ball is criminal at this level.”
Wood was one of Saints’ best ball carriers in the derby defeat.
But the attritional nature of this campaign - with no LV= Cup weeks to rest and rotate - has left him battered and bruised.
“It’s just an attritional season and trying to play week to week takes it out of you,” said Wood, who was visibly hurting physically as well as mentally after the Tigers defeat.
“I’ve got a bit of an issue with my neck, which I’m trying to sort out.
“It’s one of those things. We’ve got a series of injuries and we’re trying to scrape a team together at the moment, but whoever takes to the field for this club has got a responsibility to do the job.
“We all train together, we all prepare and we believe in our squad as a whole.
“We’re not making any excuses. We’re accountable.”
And Wood knows that one good thing to come out of this campaign is the contribution of the club’s younger players.
The likes of Mike Haywood, Teimana Harrison and Harry Mallinder have stepped up this season.
And Wood said: “It shows we have got quality players and we have just got to trust them. Maybe we can improve rotation and freshen people up at the right times.”
Now seems to be the ideal time for Saints to freshen up for one final push in the most energy-sapping of seasons.