Kingston rewrites Celtic passion play

Ireland's new captain has brought out the old strengths, says Steve Bale
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Ireland will play France in the World Cup quarter-final in Durban on Saturday and that is already quite sufficient to constitute a triumph. They head from Pretoria to the coast tomorrow; how and why they got there takes some explaining but the best place to start is with Terry Kingston.

Four months ago he was out of the team, yet again, and his successor as Irish hooker, Keith Wood, was being acclaimed as one of world - never mind Irish - rugby's outstanding prospects. That was then; now, Kingston is Ireland's inspirational captain, his personal renaissance mirroring that of his team.

Affable and open, he still looks as if he can scarcely believe that either he or his team have come this far. Kingston has been in and out of Irish sides ever since winning the first of his 23 caps in the inaugural World Cup of 1987 and it was only when Wood was omitted after Ireland had lost to Scotland and England in last season's Five Nations' Championship that he once again returned, this time as captain.

As he has been dropped at least four times during his international career, most recently while on tour in Australia last year, this is a belated but bountiful recompense. "I would be honest with you: it's a great character- builder to take the knocks and bounce back," he said, almost as if he were glad it happened.

"The first dropping is hard to take, I can tell you; you're inclined to feel you've let people down and it's only later you realise perhaps you haven't done yourself justice. You gain an awful lot of experience when you go through disappointments like that.

"Having been in the side as I was for the previous two years, I was very disappointed to be left out in Australia. Keith was playing well, so was I, but I couldn't really complain about the selection. Having said that, everyone was writing Keith up at the start of the season and I suppose it didn't look too good for me."

So Kingston plugged away while the new hooking sensation was flattering to deceive. Wood was not helped by exaggerated expectations, nor by a shoulder injury, and having come to South Africa as Kingston's deputy he had to go home when the injury recurred during last Wednesday's game against Japan.

"Keith Wood is a fine player who fully deserved to get in the side when he did and I hope he recovers from his injury and comes back to win many more caps for Ireland," Kingston said. "But even when he was the focus of all that attention I never ceased to believe in my own ability or that I would be good enough and strong enough to get back in the side."

Kingston, 31, has needed to believe this for all of the past eight years. He has spent his adult life playing for Dolphin in his native Cork, a club perennially in the shadow of their swankier neighbours, Constitution. In the Irish team in 1987 and '88, he was out in '89, in in '90, out in '91 and '92 and in again in '93 and '94.

The captaincy is a compulsory extra, Kingston having been the pack leader before his last omission, and under his aegis Ireland have regained the pride and passion - the Welsh word hwyl comes to mind, which is probably appropriate after the way they dumped Wales out of the tournament last Sunday - that were conspicuously lacking as recently as a month ago.

That was when Ireland experienced the humiliation of losing, rather easily, to Italy. The notion that between 6 May and 4 June they could go from that nadir to the zenith of alarming the All Blacks and beating Wales in the decisive Group C match was plain ridiculous.

"What I would suggest is that, leading up to the Italian game, we hadn't played together or even been together since we had won in Cardiff at the end of the Five Nations, whereas the Italians had been together for 20 days," Kingston said.

"We probably did take it for granted and funnily enough it was probably the best thing that could have happened to us. It gave us a kick up the backside and coming home we realised we had an amount of work to do. Possibly after the Welsh game we thought we were better than we really were.

"The intensity of the training we did after that was something I've never gone through before in Irish squads. Although the results did not go our way last season there was the basis of a good side there. For us to be together as we have here for more than three weeks solidly has made a huge difference. During the championship we're never able to get down to this sort of work."

It may seem a novel concept for Irishmen to equate rugby with hard work but that's the new Ireland for you. Terry Kingston's Ireland.