The last thing you would expect a player who saw red after just 73 seconds of a Premiership encounter to do is pick up the whistle – but that is exactly what Gloucester prop Nick Wood has done.
Wood was notoriously sent off for stamping on the head of Saracens’ Jacques Burger after 73 seconds of the second game of the Cherry and Whites’ season.
He was slapped with an eight-week ban as a consequence but did not waste his time on the sidelines and plans to go from sinner to saint after training as a referee.
The 31-year-old does not dispute Wayne Barnes’ decision – and ironically counts the Forest of Dean official as his refereeing hero – but he is beginning to appreciate the pressures on a modern-day man in the middle.
He said: “It’s not what you want at the start of the season.
“I know I didn’t do it deliberately but I also know the outcome was a fair one – 16 weeks halved because of my previous good record.
“I have no dispute that it was a red card, Wayne Barnes saw it happen and made the right call.
“The two best referees I’ve had are Chris White, who we hardly had as he was a local lad, and Wayne.
“It’s not just their decisions, it’s their relationship with the players and their ability to communicate and let the game flow that stands out.
“It gave me a bit of time out of the game to reflect on things and in that situation you have to control what you can.
“Once the act had been committed it was out of my hands, so I had to put in the work off the field and there was still a squad to help along.
“It also coincided with the birth of my first child so there was a bit of a silver lining and I had five weeks with my son.
“I’ve also done a refereeing course. Chris gave myself and Paul Hodgson from Worcester a crash course and has already sent us out refereeing.
“I got some banter from the boys saying I did it on purpose, but if that was the case I would have done it after 73 minutes not seconds!”
Wood has already refereed two Under-15 matches, the first between Spartans and Minchinhampton.
Standing 6ft 1in and weighing in at almost 18 stone Wood dwarfs the players around him, and that has already become one of the biggest challenges since taking up the whistle.
But the former modern languages student hopes his expanding appreciation and understanding of the laws will have a knock-on effect upon his performances in Cherry and White.
He said: “It’s been really good so far. I’ve had no backchat yet but I’m sure there will come a time.
“The hardest part has been where to stand and when you’re bigger than all the players on the pitch.
“But it gives you a greater appreciation of the rules and interpretations and that has a great knock-on effect.
“Approaching breakdowns you think what a ref might be looking for first.
“But I also probably have a very different interpretation to the breakdown and scrum to Paul, as a scrum-half.”
As a consequence of his suspension, and not being registered for Europe as a result, Wood has featured in just nine matches.
He is not feeling the aches and pains that he might usually feel at this stage of the season and is ready to launch an assault on the top six.
He said: “It was frustrating not to be registered for the Heineken Cup but it means I’m fresh for the season and it all counts towards my entire career.
“I’m getting back to playing my best and have had the chance to top up my fitness.
“Hopefully we can get in the top six and progress even further in the Challenge Cup.
“What was a dead-rubber in Perpignan has become a quarter-final after a couple of results went our way and we secured a bonus-point win.
“We have a sniff and if we can string a few games together we can get in the top six.”
For Gloucester to have any chance of breaking into the top half of the table, and progressing in Europe, their set-piece needs to function.
It crumbled on far too many occasions during Wood’s absence and the Cherry and Whites paid with a dismal showing in the first half of the season.
But due to a number of factors – experience, the acquisition of Sila Puafisi and hard work – Wood reckons the pack can lead the march forwards.
He said: “The pack has turned a corner. The boys have collectively bought into the same goal of what we’re trying to achieve.
“It wasn’t deliberate but previously we might have been trying to solve things individually and it is not the way to sort things.
“There’s been little technical changes in how we approach the scrum and probably from a month before Christmas we have seen real progress.
“Usually you do that in the off-season but we have taken it from the end of October and built from there.
“We didn’t quite get the interpretations right but it wasn’t for a lack of research.
“If there was any naivety it was that we trusted the referees and their interpretations, we went about it the right way and consulted them.
“But the directives they were given were different to what we understood and it required a pretty rapid change in our thought.
“The pack’s becoming a bit of a force, especially with Sila coming in and the signings for next year, but the existing guys as well.
“The more depth and competition there is really helps and you have to remember Shaun (Knight) and Rupert (Harden) were coming back from injuries. We had to put Yann (Thomas) across and he did a job.”
Wood is an aficionado of the scrum and a master of the dark arts from its deepest depths.
During more than a decade at the coal-face he has experienced every variation of today’s “crouch-bind-set.”
And he reckons the current law interpretations, which have put an onus back on the technical aspect of scrummaging, suits his game rather than the front-row behemoths we had been seeing.
Wood added: “I love scrummaging and always have. I’m not a big man for a prop but I always find a way to get in and have a crack.
“I base my game around the scrum, the set-piece and defence.
“It’s one of the few places where there’s a bit of a one-on-one battle. If it goes well it’s you on top of your opposite man, although in truth the guys around you are helping.
“I’ve played through five different calling sequences and every time you have to adapt but the new regulations probably help me.
“For a loose-head it was becoming increasingly hard to bind because the force of the hit and having to reach for a skin-tight jersey in a split second.
“To be able to get your bind first has brought the technical side of the game back in.
“When those big guys got long and strong you couldn’t move them. Now you can work angles more and work with your hooker.”