'Okay after three, who should be the next Irish captain? One, two, three, Drico'
Published 15/03/2014 | 02:30
That was the question Eddie O'Sullivan asked Keith Wood in November 2003. Over a decade later, Wood reflects on the man who succeeded him as skipper, their overlapping careers, life after rugby and Irish prospects of another Paris victory.
He throws out the line as if just skimming a stone across an old millpond, but it registers with a jolt. "I was three days old when Ireland won in '72," Keith Wood says of Ireland's second most recent rugby win in Paris. He played in the most recent, of course, that giddy day of 14 years back when the entire congregation of Stade de France became a mere asterisk to the Brian O'Driscoll story.
Well, since you ask, panic is the first that springs to mind. France came at them like bullies advancing upon an easy target in the schoolyard. The wild elan and urgency of their rugby spoke, albeit obliquely, of superior beings just programmed to fulfilment of the natural law. It was one of those days when they looked intent upon turning the great bowl of St Denis into a coliseum.
For 20 minutes, their rugby was a wild, blue blizzard. And then the ball went into touch.
As Wood went to retrieve it, something odd occurred to him. "I went over to pick it up for the line-out and there were only Irish forwards there," he remembers now. "Not a single Frenchman, because they were dying on their feet.
"For the first 20 minutes, they had been unbelievable. The pace of the game was frightening. They had gone full bore in that time, hoping that they'd just blow us away as they had done so often in times past. But they were only maybe four or five points up and we were fine.
"We were f****d, but we were fine! They were strewn all over the field."
A cliche then, but one with a ringing truth. Weather the early storm against France in Paris and, eventually, they come to recognise their own fallibility. We may be looking for a dramatic mutation in the historical pattern of this fixture today, but the boys of '00 located the secret. Right?
Wood smiles. There is, of course, one rather obvious proviso here.
"Yeah, the key is surviving that first 20 minutes," he says. "But, remember, it still took Brian O'Driscoll to score a hat-trick of tries for us to win by two points!"
He looks good. Healthy, trimmed down (he weighs under 16 stone for the first time in his adult life) and without trace of the destruction that rugby once wreaked upon his body.
Some years ago, Wood suffered an innocuous fall while skiing, breaking his shoulder in six places. It forced him back into the care of Ian Bayley, the London surgeon who once knew the jinxed engineering of his body more intimately than was, perhaps, comfortable. Bayley essentially rebuilt the shoulder with an assortment of pins and plates to rectify a problem Wood had carried from his playing days.
To begin with, retirement left him with a fatigued front-row frame that seemed resentful of everything he had inflicted upon it. He'd undergone three operations in just six months leading up to the '03 World Cup, waging a lonely war against his own physiology.
Keith recalls: "I went for a run after about three months and my back went. I got about 75 yards, my very first run. Just a leisurely jog in the park. Tried again three or four months later and it went again. Everything I did hurt, everything. I went cycling and my elbows swelled up. My body just said, 'Would you f**k off and leave me alone'.
"For a couple of years, I would try every now and then, but everything hurt. It was all bad pain, legacy stuff, no good pain. I was a bit worried about it, thinking this is my lot."
He was eventually rescued in a studio under the arches of Turnham Green tube station. Mike Antoniades, a Greek-Cypriot guru of the human anatomy – initially deemed "barking mad" by Wood's inner voice – introduced him to a regime of the unorthodox and the strange. One of the disciplines encouraged was a kind of power-walking or "quasi-marching" that made Wood feel "ridiculous."
Another was walking uphill, backwards on a treadmill. "I've often looked stupid in my life," Wood chuckles now, "but never as stupid as I did doing that. I was doing it at 7.0am one day and on the treadmill next to me, in her seventies, was Vanessa Redgrave, doing the exact same thing. It was just surreal.
"But, within a month, I was fine. I'd started losing weight, all my lower back pain had gone."
Then, five years ago, the family left London, relocating to his home place of Killaloe. Briefly, he went lifting weights with Peter Clohessy in the University of Limerick gym, prompting UL's director of fitness Dave Mahedy to wonder if he'd somehow been transported back in time.
"Then Dave remembered: 'No, couldn't be. Sure, Claw was never in the gym!'"
France, of course, ended Keith Wood's rugby career. He remembers the realisation dawn maybe 10 minutes from the end of that World Cup quarter-final in Melbourne 11 years ago. The journey there had been incredibly fraught for Ireland's captain and all the attendant emotions began to swell around inside him now.
When it was over, he embraced the French scrum-half Fabien Galthie, remarking: "It was either you or me today." One week later, Galthie too retired. There had been no advance trumpeting of this moment, no preparatory conversation even with Irish coach Eddie O'Sullivan.
They had both been so consumed with winning a World Cup (yes, he honestly believed that they might have done), finishing never entered the conversation.
Wood went to IRFU press officer, John Redmond, when the game was over. "John," he asked "is it appropriate to announce my retirement now?"
"Woody, you have to think about that very carefully," replied Redmond.
"I don't really!"
"Well, only announce it from international rugby..."
"No, if I'm stopping, I'm stopping."
He did tog out for one final game of rugby, an exhibition to raise funds for a young Killaloe man paralysed in an accident that year in Australia.
Himself and Anthony Foley had visited Pat Flannery in hospital during the World Cup and, one week after the final, Wood lined out for Killaloe-Ballina against The Leprechauns. At out-half!
"Be careful, I'm still in the professional mindset," he counselled others beforehand.
Yet, Wood's last 10 minutes on a rugby field still left him with a black eye.
"One of my own players ran into me," he says, grinning at the perversity of it.
His first memory of the man who succeeded him as captain is of a lion being mistaken for a zebra.
It was '99, Ireland preparing for a summer tour to Australia, when he first set eyes upon O'Driscoll. "I remember him coming in, wearing these glasses that were so thick they were like the ends of Coke bottles," recalls Wood. "He was blind as a bat, a spotty little kid, playing pool inside in the team room. I remember looking at him and thinking, 'Cannon fodder for a training session ... '
"My view on seeing him was that we'd have to get our act together and stop bringing these young fellas in and treating them so badly. Then he walked out into the training session and embarrassed the life out of all of us. It was startling, absolutely startling.
"I mean you still don't know quite how good he is because you haven't seen him play, you still have to find out how he deals with pressure. You can't know that until he's in an actual game. People who say they can are spoofing.
"But I do know that he had an attitude that I loved immediately. He was very hard on himself and incredibly driven in training, I thought I was driven in training – and I was – but he was a different level. It wasn't that he was looking for affirmation from his elders either. This was a guy whose attitude was, 'The ball is there, I've got to go and play it ... '"
There is no scientific process to identifying captaincy material. That judgment comes from the gut, from a conviction that you are looking at someone whose innate instinct is to lead.
With injury set to thieve Wood from the '03 Six Nations, O'Sullivan had a decision to make. One night while in November camp at the Glenview Hotel in Wicklow, the coach suddenly set Wood a challenge. "Okay," he said, "after three, who should be the next captain?"
In unison, both men worded the identical response. "One, two, three, Drico!"
For Wood, the nomination of O'Driscoll as interim captain would bring a release of sorts, given his emotions were being fed through the wash, spin and tumble dry of personal trauma. During Ireland's pre-qualifying for the World Cup (they'd been pitched into that predicament by the infamous '99 defeat to Argentina in Lens), he'd lost his 41-year-old brother, Gordon, to a heart attack and his mother, Pauline, to illness.
Within 36 hours of Gordon's death, Keith's first son – Alexander – was born in London. "The emotional thing of losing Gordon and Mum was incredibly hard," he reflects now. "It (life) was just so unbelievably mad at that particular time.
"But I was never shy about talking about it and I found that to be incredibly cathartic for me. I never wanted to bottle it up. If I was open and didn't have people tiptoeing around me with it, I didn't feel I was repressing anything with it either. There was an emotional numbness at the time. I was confused after the death of my brother and the birth of my first son within two days.
"I missed the funeral and I missed the birth, trying to get back for both. Nicola went into labour the night before the funeral, so I tried to get over as quickly as I could and missed the birth by a couple of hours. I had this ridiculously surreal period in the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.
"The staff were very caring towards me because my wife had told them about Gordon. But there was a classical music concert going on in the atrium of the hospital and they were practising. So we had this unbelievably beautiful sound of Mozart's 'The Magic Flute' rising up from the atrium for the whole day."
He remembers having a conversation with O'Driscoll about the captaincy beyond that '03 World Cup. Wood's own view was that, if he continued playing, he would not do so as captain. O'Driscoll, though, was unequivocal. If Wood was in the team, he was also the de facto leader.
"There was no doubting in my mind that he believed it," Keith reflects. "And I thought it was very healthy that we were having the conversation as opposed to a coach having that conversation with one or other. If he'd said to me, 'I really want to be captain', I honestly believe I'd have said, 'Then you are!'''
The two share common personality traits, yet their careers arced in strikingly different directions.
Wood won an IRB International Player of the Year award in 2001, a distinction wrongly denied O'Driscoll since, yet he was at his best through the '90s when Ireland seemed to accumulate more changes to coaching staff than Championship victories.
"The '90s were hard, very hard," concedes Wood. "I wouldn't doubt the work ethic or pride of any of the guys who played in that time, but we were pretty much all over the place."
It was a different time that invited starkly different angles of philosophy. Wood remembers an early-season meeting with Munster in '99 during which the players were invited to identify their year's personal ambition. His own contribution proved devoid of nuance. He wanted, he said, to win the Heineken Cup.
And he recalls: "There were people giggling at how preposterous that was."
O'Driscoll has existed in a profoundly different work environment, captaining Ireland through a decade in which they won four Triple Crowns and a Grand Slam.
When that captaincy was taken from him last season, the team suddenly seemed to lack composure. Today, Paul O'Connell is in the position, composure seemingly restored.
The qualities needed? "As an Irishman, I think you're expected to be humble," says Wood. "But courtesy and manners deal with that side of it. I would say you have to have a sense of arrogance too. Arrogance in the role, but not in the person. Because captaining your country is a pretty huge thing. You need to have a belief that you can be better than the other people in the world. If that's not arrogance, I don't know what is."
He will be in Paris today, working for the BBC with whom he has had a relationship since the age of 24.
Media work has tugged Wood into the odd skirmish, not least with Warren Gatland who branded him a 'mé féiner' after his criticism of O'Driscoll's omission from the final Lions Test in Australia. If his views, occasionally, flare with patriotism, Wood doesn't apologise.
"My job is to say what I believe," he says. "But I don't have an agenda. I do get wound up, I still want it. I'm there as an Irishman, do you honestly think I'm not shouting for Ireland? You must be bloody mad. I'm jumping up and down inside the (commentary) box."
His gut instinct for today? "I don't share the general optimism. I think we're in a box seat but, if this season has proved one thing above all else, it is the significance of home advantage.
"Now we've talked about what it took to win in 2000, but I have to say that this French team is not a patch on that one.
"Trouble is, I don't know what French team we'll be watching. For the last three or four French coaches, selection has been erratic.
"They have used some ridiculous number of players in the last two years. It's hard to build a team when that's happening.
"I would make France favourites as they're playing at home. Their history against Ireland in Paris is very good. I thought we would win at Twickenham, but I said we would have to be at our absolute best to do so. And we didn't quite do that.
"The same applies today and I hope we do it. Because Ireland need to win more Championships. People say it's about Grand Slams and Triple Crowns, it's not. It's about winning Championships."