Rugby Union: Five Nations' Championship - Touch Wood, the Irish look good

Hugh Godwin meets Pitbull Mark II who has the pedigree to spring a surprise
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KEITH GERALD Mallinson Wood had been in the Ireland squad for six years when he finally managed a complete Five Nations season. It was scarcely worth the wait. Ireland's 1998 campaign, albeit after one mightily close encounter in Paris, ended in their eighth whitewash by the other four countries.

Injuries were at the root of Wood's previously stuttering tenure at the heart of the Irish front row. Earlier this season he was again on the outside looking in, but this time the problem was nothing to do with fitness. Wood refused to sign the national playing contract, in a complicated spat over intellectual property rights, and he was out on his cauliflower ear for the World Cup qualifier with Georgia.

Ireland without Wood, the squat totem of the victorious 1997 Lions, the Pitbull Mark II who a year earlier inherited the Harlequins hooker's jersey from the original model Brian Moore, simply wasn't on. Back he came, as a replacement against Romania, then as a try- scoring starter in the 13-27 defeat by South Africa. "I signed the contract eventually," said Wood last week as he prepared for the Five Nations opener against France this Saturday, "because I definitely want to play for my country. I decided to give the match fees to charity but it wasn't about figures or something as straight as that. It was about having some sort of control over your own life, which everybody is entitled to have. I wasn't happy with it, and I'm more comfortable with myself that I made that stance."

Wood was the comeback kid, too, on Ireland's tour of South Africa last summer. His creaking bones were protesting but after missing the first week he heeded Ireland's call - or at least that of the coach Warren Gatland - and played in both Tests under the man who took over the captaincy from him, and has kept it since, Paddy Johns.

"I have a different view to a lot of players on captaincy," Wood said. "If you get it, that's brilliant. If you don't, you don't. I view it as an honour to have been captain of my country, but it doesn't matter to me whether I am or not. It never did. I even think it puts a better balance on the side, to be honest. I'm a pretty loud influence anyway, I get on well with Paddy and I would always stand by him."

To say that Ireland have a history as slow starters in the Five Nations is an understatement. They have lost their first match of the championship every single year since 1989. Yet Irish rugby is on a roll. The sweet smell of success has wafted around Ulster and London Irish while Harlequins, where Wood has two and a half years left on his contract, have won more than they have lost this season.

"Individually, the Ireland squad are upbeat," admitted Wood. "We need to try to gel that into a collective confidence for Saturday. I was delighted I went to South Africa last summer. Warren is a pretty pragmatic individual and it was good to be part of the bonding that went on and the progression we made in play. I thought we showed that progression against South Africa when they came to us in November. We have tidied up our game a lot."

The accepted wisdom is that while a seam of gold runs through the Ireland pack - from Wood and Paul Wallace, through Johns, Malcolm O'Kelly and Jeremy Davidson competing to lock the scrum, to the Kiwi discovery Andy Ward on the flank - it all turns to rust behind.

"We make it very hard for the backs," countered Wood. "In our continuity between forwards and backs, we're crap. We do stuff with the ball and say, there you are, you do something. It's not ideal for them, and we need to work harder on that.

"The international defences over the autumn matches have been shown to be incredibly aggressive. I don't think you'll see as many tries in the Championship [a record-equalling 55 were scored in last year's 10 matches] because everyone is more capable of that hard, nitty- gritty stuff. Before there was a lack of fitness or tell-tale holes in defence that let sides through. The race for the championship will be a lot closer as a result."

Wood finds the odds of 80-1 about an Ireland Grand Slam more than tempting. "Don't worry," he said, "we'll soon be drinking champagne and eating escargots at the demise of French rugby."

All right, so the quip from this son of Limerick might just have been for the benefit of Harlequins' French fitness coach Pascal Valentini, who was standing nearby. But if Keith Wood has anything to do with it, Dublin will be dining on snails and bubbly come Saturday night.