Rugby Union: Ireland turn to in-form Woods

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The Independent Online
IT WAS bound to happen sooner or later, so perhaps this is as good a time as any. Niall Woods, quite outstanding both as a goal-kicker and a try-scoring left wing throughout the first six months of the current Allied Dunbar Premiership campaign, will make his first Five Nations appearance in very nearly three years when Ireland take on Wales at Wembley on Saturday.

"Niall's promotion will in no way weaken our side," pronounced Warren Gatland, the national coach, yesterday. True, Warren. Very true.

Woods replaces Girvan Dempsey, the Terenure College wing, who withdrew yesterday with a hip injury. Without criticising Dempsey in the slightest, it is not unreasonable to suggest that had Woods faced the reigning French Grand Slammers at Lansdowne Road 12 days ago, rather than their second- string A team at Donnybrook the previous evening, the Irish would be travelling to London today with a precious championship victory already in the bag. A heartbreakingly nerve-ravaged display of goal-kicking by David Humphreys, the Ulster stand-off, handed the Tricolores their scarcely credible triumph on a plate.

Deeply suspicious of Woods' defensive capabilities, or lack of them, Gatland was prepared to go only so far in rehabilitating the London Irish finisher. "Humphreys will continue as kicker," confirmed the coach. "He is experienced in the role, he has had plenty of practice over the last 10 days and his confidence is high." For all that, Woods will take over the instant Humphreys fluffs a kickable three-pointer against the Welsh.

This weekend's fixture is taking place in the shadow of the twin towers only because the new Millennium Stadium in Cardiff remains a work in progress. Widespread concern that the pounds 120m ampitheatre might not be ready to house the biggest games in this autumn's World Cup, including the final scheduled for 6 November, was yesterday eased when Leo Williams, the tournament chairman, received assurances of its completion by Welsh Rugby Union officials.

However, Williams openly admitted that contingency plans were in place. Wembley, Murrayfield and the Stade de France in Paris are thought to have been identified as possible emergency venues for the final and, while Williams insisted that he had no intention of delivering any sort of ultimatum to the WRU, he said that alternative provision had been made to comply with insurance requirements.

Meanwhile, Richard Hill confessed yesterday that his abrupt sacking as Gloucester's coach had left him "disappointed and upset". Hill surfaced in Leeds, where he took charge of the England A team preparing for tomorrow night's awkward fixture against their Scottish equivalents. "If you take one backward step - and, sometimes, you have to in order to move forward - you're out of a job," he said. "It takes some understanding."

At least Philippe Saint-Andre, the new Gloucester front man, understood him. "Richard said `c'est la vie'," smiled the former French wing and captain. "I am sad because I didn't want to take Richard's place. I am here at Gloucester because of him. But now we must play well each week. There will not be a revolution in one month, though. Maybe in 15 months."

One of Hill's constant criticisms of his under-achieving squad was their lack of fitness.Saint-Andre, however, though touched with rugby genius, has a reputation which suggests his line of thinking is more on the wavelength of Willie Duggan, the old Irish Lion, who once said: "The quickest way to take the edge off your form is to go training."

These are interesting times down Kingsholm way.