Keith Wood is in a jovial mood at the University of Limerick Ulster Bank this morning. He is here as an ambassador for the RBS Six Nations tournament and is accompanying the Six Nations trophy, as well as a considerable PR entourage, on a whistle-stop tour of Limerick city this icy Monday. Three Monkeys loiters outside, before finally being spared his artic torment and invited into a small office where he greets the smartly clad Wood; fresh from dozens of photo ops, joking with enamoured bank employees and balancing the trophy on his head. “It’s fantastic, the kids just love it,” he remarks, referring to the hundreds of children who assembled at St. Munchins College earlier as Wood visited his old alma mater. “They see the cup on the telly and then they get a chance to see it up close”. Perhaps said youngsters are more excited about the presence of Wood himself than the trophy? “I think it’s a little bit of both,” he jokes.
Words such as ‘icon’ and ‘legend’ are bandied about so much in sport today that it is hard not to become numb to their significance. Yet Wood is exactly that – an Irish rugby legend, arguably our finest international captain. His career encompassed League titles with Garryowen in 1992 and 1994, 58 international caps (a record 36 as captain), Lions tours in 1997 and 2001, a myriad of unfortunate injuries, but above all else, a hardened determination to succeed that stayed with him until his retirement in 2003. On the pitch he exuded power, bravery and leadership, and was considered the finest hooker in world rugby for years. Off the field, a reputation as an intelligent and light-hearted man has always preceded him.
Growing up, however, it was by no means certain that Wood would seek a future in Rugby Union. Despite a strong family heritage with the sport – his father Gordon was capped 29 times and toured with the Lions in 1959 – the thought of pursuing rugby seriously never occurred to him. “You dream of playing sport as a young fella, but I never thought of it as a career or anything vaguely like that”. “I was just a sportsman from a very sporting family” notes Wood, who also played hurling and soccer fervently as a child. “I went to a rugby school and loved playing it, but how I got playing seriously was the luck of the draw really. I was asked to join Garryowen when I left Munchins. If I hadn’t been asked, I mightn’t have played at all. In the end it all hinged on a couple of guys making a chance trip out to Killaloe”. The luck of the draw indeed.
Wood played international rugby for four years as an amateur before the onset of professionalism in 1996 (“It was never a money thing anyway,” he notes), at which stage he joined English club Harlequins. He went on to play all his club rugby at the Stoop, excluding his legendary ‘sabbatical’ of 2000 when he helped drive Munster to within a fibre of Heineken Cup glory. For fans and commentators alike, however, it was his integral role in the victorious 1997 Lions tour of South Africa that marked the pinnacle of Wood’s career, as well as elevating his status to a truly global level. “It was like having blinkers taken off”, he remarks about the experience. “We weren’t a good Irish team at that time; we had had successive wooden spoons and were in a bad spot, yet suddenly you could see that there was much better training and different experiences to be had. You got to believe that other things were possible. It was a great tour for opening your eyes”.
Wood occupied a more central role on the tour of Australia in 2001. Though not awarded the outright captaincy, he occupied an informal role of seniority within the group, along with men such as Martin Johnson and Jason Leonard, whose leadership would prove crucial to the survival of the expedition as morale disintegrated. “In 2001 we had a great team, a better team than in 1997 or 2005”. Why then, did the tour fail? “There wasn’t any one thing really. We made a few mistakes [Joe Roff’s interception in the second test is a tragic example], but we were knackered. By the last test we virtually had nobody left standing. We over-trained on that tour, definitely. We still could have won it, but we didn’t score in the last twenty minutes of any test. We were just bushed”.
As a man who considers the British and Irish Lions an important part of his rugby experience, Wood is particularly annoyed with the debacle that was the 2005 tour to New Zealand. “I feel very angry about it really. We brought too many players; the guys never got the chance to get to know each other well. Lions tours are a unique thing in sport; it’s about the best players from the four home unions. 51 players out of 60 isn’t the cream of the crop, that’s everyone. That de-mystifies the Lions”. Sir Clive Woodward’s vivacious PR campaign is also dismissed by Wood. “There was too much money thrown at it”. It is clear from his ever-so-slightly bile tone that the distortion of the Lions mystique last year strikes a nerve with him.
Wood now slides back into his chair and offers his two cents regarding Irish prospects for the Six Nations [Editor’s note: This interview took place before the opening of the competition]. “Bit happier now than I was a few weeks ago” he says, contentedly referring to the impressive Heineken Cup performances of Munster and Leinster, and more specifically Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll, the previous weekend. “With those two back, we have enough leadership on the field to make something happen. You can see the confidence of the guys around them goes up once they’re playing. We didn’t have that in the autumn and looked a bit rudderless”. In the wider auspices of test rugby, there have been some calls for the incorporation of a more expansive style of play by Northern hemisphere teams with one eye on the 2007 World Cup. Wood is somewhat sceptical. “There’s an element of change alright; there’s been more offloading in the last six months than in the previous six years! But we need to make certain we keep the grit and the grunt that is Northern Hemisphere rugby. It’s about finding a balance”.
There’s a knock on the door. Mr. Wood has a busy schedule, and an interview with a now partially-thawed Three Monkeys cannot delay that too much. Let’s move on. Quickly. What are Wood’s own designs for the future? Coaching perhaps? “No, I don’t have the tolerance for that. I’m known as a cranky man”, he sniggers wryly. “I said it the day I retired, I don’t plan on wasting the next five years proving how shit a coach I am. I really want to do something in rugby someday, but it won’t be coaching”.
Three Monkeys is now anticipating another, more forceful knock. We motor on. The year prior to Wood’s swansong in 2003 was a period of rollercoaster emotions: the birth of his first child Alexander was flanked by the deaths of his brother Gordon and mother Pauline, all this at a time when his body fought against a belligerent shoulder injury that placed his career in doubt. What kept him going? “I made a commitment to myself that I was going to retire after the World Cup and I worked very hard to do that”. Looking back, Wood appreciates the poignant timing of his decision. “I was happy with it in the end. I wanted to be able to perform properly in the World Cup, and I wanted to say ‘I’m stopping now’. I was content with the idea then and I’m content with it now. It was the right time”.
Like in any Hitchcock movie, the suspense of waiting for the inevitable is broken. The door swings open; Mr. Wood has to go. With a good-bye handshake like a rusted vice grip, the RBS PR machine powers on, rugby legend in tow. Three Monkeys > dices with the idea of making an Uncle Fester comment as a light-hearted parting joke. Unsurprisingly, words fail him. It appears his courage hasn’t thawed out yet.