Rugby Union: Elwood the heir apparent: Ireland look to the latest in a noble line to lift their Five Nations challenge - Chris Rea meets a fly-half who made the most of his long-awaited chance

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The Independent Online
'HE'S good, but he's not exactly in the Jack Kyle class.' How successive generations of Irish fly-halves must have cringed at being measured against the great man. A few have escaped the most odious of comparisons: Ollie Campbell, pale, frail and ginger-haired was one, another was Tony Ward, a footballer of consummate skill, and then there was Mike Gibson, called to serve his country more often as a centre but perhaps the most sublimely gifted player in Ireland's history.

Let us not forget, also, Barry McGann, who kicked from the hand with piercing accuracy and who possessed a vision as clear as Gibson's. McGann is now president of the Lansdowne club from where, coincidentally, comes the latest of Kyle's descendants, Eric Elwood.

There are certain similarities in style, if not in shape, between Elwood and McGann (who would never, it has to be said, have qualified for a Slimmer of the Year competition). Elwood kicks with the same uncanny precision, displays the same tactical command and is not short of the self-belief without which no fly-half can hope to compete at the highest level. But Elwood, who will be central to Ireland's effort when their Five Nations campaign opens in a fortnight's time in Paris, had waited an unconscionable time for his overnight success.

Exactly a year ago, at the age of 23, he was sitting in the Lansdowne Road stand watching the Irish trial, not as a bench reserve but as a paying spectator. 'I enjoy rugby so much I'd go to watch a gash game in a public park. But I went to the trial out of curiosity.' His curiosity, if not his ire, had been aroused by the fact that he had been playing the best rugby of his life for Lansdowne, unbeaten and at the top of the Second Division. 'I felt that I had been playing well enough to merit a place in the trial but, out of the blue, the selectors picked Niall Malone and Paul Burke. Neither had played in the interprovincial tournament and neither was playing in Ireland.'

It was a savage slight to Elwood and to the other home- based players who had risen through the ranks by the conventional route only to be usurped by a couple of queue- jumpers. But, as Elwood sat watching the trial and his two rivals engaged in an unequal struggle against an untameable gale, the thought occurred to him that this might have been a match to miss.

'So much of getting to the top is about being in the right place at the right time and, that day, I had no doubt that the right place to be was in the back of the stand.' As events turned out, that was also the place to be when Ireland made the lamest of starts to the international championship against Scotland and France.

On both occasions Malone, fresh from Oxford where he had won his Blue, laboured behind a pack which had neither the power nor the experience to provide their half-backs with decent possession. Malone, for his part, was powerless to turn bad ball into good and paid the ultimate price when the team for the next match, against Wales in Cardiff, was announced.

'After watching the French game I had a kind of a sixth sense that my time had come,' Elwood explained. 'and so, when the call came, I was thrilled, but not completely surprised.' But was it a poisoned chalice? The loss to France was Ireland's 11th consecutive defeat and even the Irish crowd raised on the philosophy that the situation, however hopeless, was never serious, were growing restive.

There had even been the chiding beat of a slow hand-clap during the French game and it may just have crossed Elwood's mind as he ran on to the field at Cardiff that somewhere in the stand or in front of a television set that day was an aspiring young Irishman who knew that this was very definitely a match to miss.

'I certainly didn't make the best of starts. I muffed a kick- off and missed a drop goal. If I'd done that a few years earlier I would have gone to pieces. But I just kept telling myself not to panic and to hang in until my luck began to turn.' And turn it did. Elwood's run at the Welsh defence committed the opposition back row and created just enough space for Brian Robinson to score. Elwood's conversion, his first points in international rugby, stilled the fluttering nerves and with three penalty goals later in the match Elwood had contributed massively to Ireland's victory.

Such relief and release had seldom been witnessed on a rugby field. Nick Popplewell, the bulwark of the Irish scrum, was crying his eyes out and so were others for whom the joy of victory in Ireland's colours was a new experience. Elwood, the debutant, wondered what all the fuss was about, but not even he could contain his emotions a fortnight later when, on an unforgettable afternoon in Dublin, the Irish put a tired and dispirited England to flight. 'In all the years I've been going to the ground to watch international matches, I'd never experienced anything like it. Even some of the old international players agreed that the atmosphere was unique.'

Looking back, Elwood considers that Ireland played with the same commitment and conviction which England displayed against the All Blacks - immensely difficult to sustain over a long period but satisfying beyond measure on the day. 'At no time did we allow England to settle. We disrupted them and broke up their patterns. We varied our play and, to our delight and surprise found that they were incapable of varying theirs.'

Elwood was characteristically philosophical about his omission from the Lions' party who toured New Zealand last summer. 'Of course it would have been a great privilege but the way I see it is that if it had been me and not Niall Malone playing in Ireland's first two championship matches last season, then, in all probability, I wouldn't even have been in contention for a Lions place.'

Elwood is an admirer of New Zealand rugby, of their disciplined approach to training and their attention to detail, and considers the turning point of his career was the arrival of Warren Gatland, the All Black reserve hooker, at his former club, Galwegians, in 1989.

The New Zealander Grant Fox, for his powers of concentration, and Australia's Michael Lynagh, for his all-round skills, are, Elwood believes, examples for all fly-halves to follow, and he considers Rob Andrew to be the most complete player in the game today.

For Elwood, a sales representative with Irish Distillers, the future is full of exciting possibilities. 'To beat England at Twickenham would be a thrill, but first things first. And I can think of nothing more satisfying than to be in an Irish side to win in Paris, where we haven't won for 22 years.'

If rugby union has done nothing else for sport and for the human race at large, it has proved time and again that there is room at the top for those blessed with the old-fashioned virtues of modesty, integrity and charm. Elwood embraces all of them. 'When I was a boy I dreamt of playing rugby for Ireland. Now I'm living that dream and enjoying every minute of it. A lot is being asked of the top players nowadays but better to be asked than to be ignored.'

(Photograph omitted)