Rugby Union: Johns set to lead the charge

Hugh Godwin says Ireland's new captain will never be found wanting
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THERE WERE enough fireworks around the Paddy Johns residence on Thursday evening without the man of the house getting too excited over his predecessor as Ireland captain. Well, with a three-and-a-half year old son and a daughter of 18 months to keep amused, Bonfire Night is likely to be a noisy affair without any encouragement from Keith Wood.

In between the bangs and the flashes Johns considered the position of Wood. The Harlequins and Lions hooker, having refused to sign the Irish Rugby Football Union contract offered to Ireland's foreign-based players, was this week omitted from the squad for the World Cup qualifiers to be played between 14-21November.

It is the same contract that has been signed by Johns, of Saracens, nine fellow English-based Irishmen and Jeremy Davidson, currently at the French club Castres. Had any other player considered taking the Wood line? "The best answer I can give you," said Johns, "is that we have signed, Keith hasn't. It's not my job to judge on it. I just feel sorry for Keith and his family, because they're under a lot of strain.

"Keith came out to tour South Africa in the summer with his body in bits. He came because he was asked to and the amount of support he gave me as captain, I couldn't thank him enough for. It's important he sorts this out as quickly as possible, the team needs him."

The Rugby World Cup organisers, in a zealous effort to make the qualifying process as inclusive as possible, have pitted each of the home unions, with the exception of the hosts Wales, against two supposedly lesser nations. In each group the top two go through, and the third may make it via a repechage. You can't get much more inclusive than that.

So it is for the next two Saturdays that Johns has Georgia, not to mention Romania, on his mind. "All I know about Georgia," said Johns, "is that they have lost one game in a year, and that was only 31-14 to Italy. They look set to take over from Romania as the main team in the old Eastern bloc. We have to take both threats seriously."

A small army of autograph-hunting children descended on Ireland's unglamorous training camp near Cork in midweek. "Wood's sick", the youngsters were told, though they probably knew as well as anyone that the hooker was fit and well in London, as he had been since he realised it would be pointless to take the flight to Cork he had booked for last Sunday.

It is up to Johns to lead by example. And what an example he set in the Second Test in South Africa in June. Hitherto Johns' reputation had been one of unwavering but understated commitment. At Loftus Versfeld that day, Johns punctuated his play with stand-up fights involving, among others, his opposite number Gary Teichmann. It was the sustained nature of the violence that set the match apart, more so than any other high-level international since, perhaps, France v England in 1992.

Could there be a hangover when Teichmann's tourists come to Lansdowne Road in three weeks? "There was a lot you saw in that match," said Johns, "and a lot you couldn't see. As a player you can either lie down and take it, or you can stand up to it. It wasn't planned but the way things went early on, it was going to happen. They came out to intimidate us. I hope when we meet them this time it's a good clean game and good entertainment for the people who go and watch."

Johns' re-appointment as captain is a source of quiet pride for the 30-year-old Ulsterman. "I played my first cap with the team manager Donal Lenihan, in 1990, and my second cap with Phil Danaher, who is his assistant. The coach Warren Gatland is of a similar age, so we are all on the same wavelength. They know what the players want."

For the first time in his 10-month tenure of the job, Gatland has all his first-choice locks - Johns, Davidson, Malcolm O'Kelly and Mick Galwey - available for selection. He is unlikely to find Johns wanting.