28 January 2001

Keith Wood – hyped-up, shaven-headed, mad Celtic warrior? No, more a tremendous athlete with skill, pace and an intelligent intensity

There will be a smile on his face. Not a smile, he admits, “with an awful lot of humour in it”. No, it is the sort of smile you might see on a tail-swishing tiger hungry for its prey. To say Keith Wood is looking forward to leading Ireland in the Six Nations on Saturday would be the ultimate in understatement.

“It is always daunting,” he says, two stitches in the side of his nose a tribute to Harlequins’ hostilities against the French side Perigeux the previous weekend. “It should be every time you go out on to the pitch. But I love it. I get a huge buzz out of it yet it is incredibly frightening. It has to be. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.”

From the stands the image of Keith Wood is of a hyped-up, shaven-headed, Celtic warrior tearing round the pitch faster than any hooker in history like some mad potato on speed. But the idea that he is just a lunatic Irishman overdosing on adrenalin is as quickly dismissed on meeting him as it was to listeners of Sunday’s repeat of Radio 5’s Live Obituary Show when Keith’s music stretched from Leonard Cohen to Gabriel’s Oboe, his authors from Joseph Heller to Robert Frost.

He has been working out with his Harlequins team-mates at the Army training centre in Aldershot. He talks with a quiet, intelligent, intensity; energy throbbing out of syllables as carefully picked as the hooker’s throw to the back of the line.

“I am in the fortunate position,” he says as club front-row partner (and Six Nations opponent) Jason Leonard wanders through for his chicken and pasta lunch, “of having had rugby as my hobby. Back in Limerick, hurling was my game of choice. It is only since I came over here in ’96 that it has become incredibly serious. What used to be my hobby is now my job and I still derive a huge enjoyment even from training in the freezing cold, giving a couple of guys a hard time, getting some back. It is great fun.”

From his late father Gordon, a Lion and an Irish international, he got the tradition. From hurling he got the fearlessness (“if you are in close you can’t get hurt, if you hang back you get split”) and the famous side-step that makes him one of the most dangerous weapons in the Irish or any other nation’s armoury. From rugby, he has got the challenge and the stage where his special talents have flourished.

Six foot, 16 ½ stone and 29 yesterday, Keith Wood is at the very pinnacle of his career. “He may not be an Adonis,” says Jason Leonard (who should know), “but he is a tremendous athlete and while he looks like a mad Irishman rushing all over the place, that is just him. We’ve had a couple of run-ins in internationals but that’s because he’s so competitive. We’ve always had a laugh and a drink afterwards. He is actually a very skilful player.”

The next two months may well pitch Wood into pole position to captain the Lions this summer, “but thinking of that will not possess any of my time”. They will also put Ireland’s improved 1999 showing to the test, “and that will possess a considerable amount of my time”.

Looking to the future, he has joined up with former Munster team-mate Killian Keane and fellow international Paul Burke’s wife Hilary to form a media team somewhat unoriginally entitled Touch Wood.

Without being paid a cent he is already the greatest walking and talking salesman for rugby as a whole and Irish rugby in particular. “Are young people going to come into the game?”, he asks rhetorically. “Why not? It’s a great game. It has a spirit and a closeness that isn’t there at all in soccer. It is still a game for all shapes and sizes. There is something elementary about it.”

As to Ireland, he is still in awe at the support given to Munster’s journey through to last year’s European Cup final. “Forty-five thousand Irish people came to Twickenham, 25,000 came over, it was a mass exodus, every crossing was booked. I am surprised we didn’t have any swimmers making the trip. And at the end, the outpouring of grief for us was absolutely startling. It was so good natured, no criticism. So one of the very worst moments of my career, losing the European final, was lifted by this extraordinary reaction.”

Yet defeat is not a currency he likes to trade in. “Last year Ireland won three matches for the first time in 15 years. But we got rubbed out badly by England and then we lost a great opportunity to beat South Africa in the autumn. In Ireland we have always had passion but with it has come an almost Corinthian attitude. Get lashed up afterwards, it doesn’t really matter if you lose. Now we have to have all that passion and add the other facets of discipline, composure, fitness and skill. I would like us to win something, to get a level of consistency.”

Surely with just 12,000 players in a game which is fourth choice behind soccer and the two Gaelic disciplines, Ireland can only have a pygmy’s chance in the face of rugby giants such as France and England. “No,” he says, the eyes glowing in that huge dome of a skull, “we may have 12,000 players but they are people who have chosen rugby. It is the nature of the game that it doesn’t matter if you have a hundred thousand players, it is the 15 players on the field who count.

“The interest in rugby,” he continues, “is probably higher per capita than in almost any other country. Limerick is the closest thing you have to New Zealand. Rugby there has to be for everyone. We have a great saying `the doctor and the docker can play side by side’.”

Eight years in the green jersey have seen some tremendous highs. “My first cap against Australia in ’94 is a huge thought,” he says. “My first as captain was marvellous, I have also won league titles with Garryowen, had those quarter-final and semi-final European Cup wins with Munster. Had victories over Bath and Leicester with Quins. A lot of good things there.”

Yet the voice tails off at the thought of the challenge ahead and the memory of the troubles before. Not so much the career-threatening shoulder collapse in ’96, nor the contract dispute with Ireland last year, but the real bad moments on the pitch that need to be avenged, and the desire to “impart into the player that little bit of extra sacrifice”.

Most of all he remembers that South African defeat in Dublin. “It was terrible,” he says. “We had an opportunity to beat them and we spurned it. Some people criticised me for saying it was gut-wrenching. Well I am sorry but for me it is. I can’t hide it. Losing is absolutely horrific. Some people are stoic in defeat. That is not a bad emotion. But other people are indifferent to defeat. Now that is never an option. It has to hurt.”

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