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Best taking Wood path in bid to fill leadership void


Best: Set to equal Keith Wood's record

Best: Set to equal Keith Wood's record

Best: Set to equal Keith Wood's record

This Saturday, bruised and battered Ireland will have to function without both twin talismen of the golden generation -- Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell -- for the first time in the Six Nations since 2001.

They have missed the odd game against lower-tier nations -- for example the duo were rested against Russia in the World Cup -- but the last time the last two Lions captains were missing for Ireland against a leading nation bodes ill.

In the November series of 2005, O'Driscoll was still recovering from the spear tackle that stalled his Lions captaincy, while O'Connell was sidelined with a broken thumb.

Ireland crashed to heavy defeats that autumn -- 45-7 to the All Blacks and 30-14 to Australia.

"They give us leadership and experience, which is hard to replace when they're not there," bemoaned Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan at the time. "Having both captained the side, they have a certain gravitas about them."

Six years on and their combined absence is once more prompting furrowed brows.

Scotland and England don't pose a comparable threat, but there is still enough anguish among supporters to query whether Ireland can cope with such a rare leadership vacuum.

Rory Best debuted during that depressing November Series.


However, six years on, the obvious choice to step into the captaincy breach will draw level with Keith Wood as Ireland's most capped hooker with 58 appearances. He is adequately qualified to alleviate the concern.

"Leaders have emerged in the past while," asserts the Banbridge man, who will lead Ireland out before his proud family, including his brother Simon, a former Ireland prop -- and captain once against Argentina -- who had to retire prematurely following a heart scare at the 2007 World Cup.

"You look at that 2005 team and there were quite a few players who were inexperienced that came in and a lot of pressure was placed upon Simon Easterby's shoulders.

"The situation is slightly different now. The great advantage of having Paul and Brian both as captain and being around so long, the few senior players underneath have had time to develop with not as much pressure.

"You see Jamie Heaslip captaining Leinster, myself at Ulster, then Eoin Reddan, Sean O'Brien and Stevie Ferris have stepped up also. Their voices are being heard. You know when they speak, they speak sense and everyone listens. That's what we need.

"It's been drip-fed this season in terms of us losing influence, with Brian missing three games and now Paul missing the last two. But you need five or six leaders. As a captain, it reassures me that we have that depth in the squad."

Coach Declan Kidney echoed his reassurance.

"You never want to lose anyone to injuries in terms of leadership, but that's the way sport is. It's an opportunity now for other fellas to put their hands up.

"It was refreshing this morning at training. There were a few lads starting to talk up more. They recognise the situation and they'll bring their tuppence-worth.

"If we look back and start cribbing and complaining, then we're nowhere. We're very happy with the fellas coming into it. It's everyone's chance now to show what they can do."

For Best, who previously captained Ireland on the summer wins against USA and Australia while O'Driscoll and O'Connell were on Lions duty, Saturday's visit of the Scots promises to be an unforgettable occasion.

Even more so if he can oversee a desperately needed Irish win.

"It's a great honour," says the 29-year-old. "You grow up, coming down to Dublin year after year as a family to the old Lansdowne Road, and always seeing the captain coming out first.

"It's somewhere where you always dreamed you'd be. But you never thought you'd get there. Then you start playing for Ulster and Ireland, getting leadership roles within that. You dare to dream really. It's a fantastic honour for the family.

"Simon will probably be the first to congratulate me. Since he unfortunately retired, he's followed my career closely and he's always been keen to offer me a few words of advice.

"It'll be a nice day for the family but it will only be a nice day for me if we get the right result."

Wood was knocking around the team's Carton House base yesterday in his role as a BBC pundit and he may have shared a sprinkling of advice with his latest successor as Irish captain and hooker.

Best will have been an enthusiastic listener.

"Keith Wood is the one that stands out," he responds. "He captained for a long time from the same position and he had a huge impact on the game.

"As a spectator, you can't appreciate anything that he may have said but you can see the way that he did things and led by example.

"It was something I admired as a young player coming through, and then on becoming captain of underage teams. You saw how people reacted to his big moments during games."

Irish Independent