Thursday 22 February 2018

Wood senses lasting World Cup legacy from Ireland

TV3 presenter and Irish Independent columnist Sinead Kissane pictured alongside Ireland international Sean O'Brien with the William Webb Ellis trophy in Dublin yesterday
TV3 presenter and Irish Independent columnist Sinead Kissane pictured alongside Ireland international Sean O'Brien with the William Webb Ellis trophy in Dublin yesterday
David Kelly

David Kelly

Keith Wood doesn't hoard many mementoes from his rugby career in his Killaloe home.

You have to navigate through a few rooms before locating the tangible remnants of a Rugby World Cup legacy that was as personally fulfilling as it was professionally frustrating.

A wooden rugby ball takes pride of place in the unpretentious glass cabinet; signed by all 20 captains from the 2003 competition, his swansong; behind it lie three caps which represent the fact that he played in three World Cups.

As with Paul O'Connell this autumn, Keith Wood signalled the end of his international career at a World Cup; it would seem to have been on his terms were it not for the fact that sport has a way of negotiating its own.

Finished

"Ten minutes before the end," the 58-times-capped hooker says of the quarter-final defeat to France in Melbourne, "I knew my career was finished.

"I was playing on with pride, even though we were being hockeyed. I wanted to retire two weeks later, in a World Cup final. I hugged my opposite number, Fabien Galthie, at the end and whispered in his ear, 'It was you or me today'.

"We lost but it was still a highlight to play on the world stage, to lead your country out in a World Cup."

Twelve years on, O'Connell's circumstances would seem to mirror his former team-mate but there are manifest differences; for one thing, the titanic second-row will turn 36 during the World Cup; Wood was just 31 when he caved in to his battered body's pleading.

And O'Connell also has a further career to occupy him beyond what he may hope is an October 31 final date in Twickenham as he begins life in Toulon, something which Wood feels can drive him on during the World Cup.

"For me, I didn't say anything publicly because I wanted to know how I might feel at the end. I didn't know how I would feel at the end.

"People said obviously you knew for certain, but I didn't know for certain. It was only with ten minutes to go until the end. Then, as soon as it over, I was certain and very comfortable. Apart from wanting to go two weeks later.

"Paul is older but he sees things slightly differently, there is an end to his international career but then like Monty Python, he's going for something completely different after it all finishes. Which is kind of cool.

"So he won't be thinking about it at all. He managed it really, really well and all he can concentrate on now is Ireland. If he never plays again after Ireland, it won't bother him.

"He knows he has a job to do and he will be living in every moment. That's what you have to do as a player. He won't be stuck in the decision, he just has to concentrate on playing the game.

"He would have hated the endless speculation and conversation about it. I had a go at people when they were asking me during the World Cup.

"I wasn't trying to keep it a secret, I just didn't want to talk about it, I didn't know. Paul won't have all that and he won't have to get caught up in the 'last this' or the 'last that'. He just wants to play as many 80 minutes as he can."

Wood believes that there may be more of them than ever before; his pride at his World Cup experience is tinged with embarrassment that Ireland have never reached the last four.

"It's not a good stat and I'm not proud of it. But you hope that would change with this team.

"You go into the tournament with a little bit of hope and that sometimes frightens the Irish. But then you have a coach who has delivered at everything that he has done.

"We have to be the team to do that now. A lot depends on other results and injury. If we have injuries to key players at different times, we're in trouble.

"In 2011, everybody spoke about how big a game Australia was. But that was only a big game, I heard people say that was the best win Ireland ever had.

One step

"No, it wasn't. It was a great win. But we then lost against Wales, a team we beat often. It's only one step.

"This team have won it all and they have to use it when they play in these big games to make it happen.

"We lost to Wales in the Six Nations which is really good for us especially as we still end up winning the championship.

"We learned a few things, Joe Schmidt will too about the fact that the game plan wasn't appropriate and maybe he will learn from that. But it's still a great fillip to come out the end of it and still win the trophy.

"I just think he is a class act. And for him it's about trying to realise I have these guys for a long time, let's not burn them out, let's have a bit of fun and let's get everybody believing in it.

"And every player in the squad should want to play in the first team. If your mentality is a squad player, you shouldn't be on the plane."

Wood has met Galthie and other former French captains in recent times and warns that the Gallic indifference of the Six Nations will be absent; their record of reaching three World Cup deciders, added to their unbeaten record against Ireland, brooks little debate.

"France's expectation is to win," he says. "They know they'll be together for a good while, they expect to win and there's no doubt in their minds."

Wood was theoretically on British soil yesterday, as the British Embassy in the heart of Ballsbridge hosted the latest leg of the England 2015 Webb Ellis Cup trophy tour.

If Ireland are to get their hands on the famed prize, Wood is convinced that Ireland's half-backs must emerge unscathed.

"If we have injuries to key players at different times, we're in trouble, especially at out-half. We can't cope if one of them drops.

"Look at how hard it has been for New Zealand to cope when they were under pressure after losing just one half-back."

Irish Independent

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