Rugby Union: Wood bursting to be Quins' driving force

Paul Trow says Ireland's finest is ready to give his all for London's glamour boys
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AS Harlequins bid farewell to one international skipper, another is ready to return to the fray. Keith Wood may have a way to go before he is spoken of in the same breath as Will Carling, but the captain of Ireland is already seen by Quins followers as the rock without whom their side tends to crumble.

Certainly, recent evidence bears this out. Less than a month ago, Wood, who took over the club captaincy from Jason Leonard this season, helped to steer Quins to a remarkable 53-17 demolition of Wasps in the Allied Dunbar Premiership. The following weekend, though, the 25-year-old hooker was concussed as Ireland lost 37-21 to Italy in Bologna and he has had to sit out the last three weeks.

For Wood, watching from the sidelines has been frustrating as Quins' old flaw of inconsistency again surfaced. Firstly they lost 40-38 at home to Bristol on New Year's Eve, then last Sunday Wasps turned the tables at Loftus Road by dumping their London rivals out of the Tetley's Bitter Cup.

Wood's own description of himself - " I'm a happy-go-lucky sort of individual" - is accurate up to a point, but he is unlikely to spare himself when he returns to league action today against high-flying Saracens at Vicarage Road. "I can't wait to get back. And after the start Saracens have had this will be a particularly tough encounter - we'd certainly like to take them down," said Wood, who played for Garryowen in his home town of Limerick before joining Quins 18 months ago.

"Now we're out of the cups, it's probably easier for me to motivate the side as we have only one objective to focus on - qualifying for Europe next season. We've only lost four league matches and the sides above us will lose at least that before the season's over.

"I suppose the captaincy has been a learning curve, though I hate that phrase. Professionalism has made it a completely different job with many more responsibilities. It's enjoyable though we're lacking consistency. Andy Keast, our director of rugby, put his finger on it when he said we were arrogant. No disrespect to Bristol, but we should have thrashed them.

"My own injury has been very annoying. Sometimes the knock is mild and three weeks is too long, but I was definitely concussed - I didn't know where I was for a few days - so the time out was probably right."

Injuries are now a fact of life for all of rugby's top players, but by any standards Wood has had more than his fair share since making his Ireland debut against Australia in 1994.

Shoulder damage sustained at the 1995 World Cup in South Africa kept him out for the whole of the following season. A dislocated collarbone against France just under a year ago curtailed his first season with Quins, but he battled back to play a prominent part in the Lions' success last summer despite injuring an ankle in the first Test and a groin in the second.

The real difficulty has been adjusting to normality following that historic triumph. "The anti-climax for the Lions players kicked in two days after the tour. There was a huge buzz on tour and a huge sense of relief when it was over. Even now a lot of the guys are suffering from a loss of form and appetite.

"Everyone was tired from a long season even before the tour started. The Lions tour required one big last effort, but if we hadn't won the second Test I don't think there's any way we'd have won the third to take the series, we were all so knackered. For England to go then to Australia was absolutely ridiculous. Martin Johnson played 51 matches last year - that's criminal. If this keeps up you'll have a mass burn-out within two years, even though there's great heart in rugby players.

"It took me a long while to get over the fatigue. Needless to say, a lot of the guys are picking up injuries - I hurt my ankle in Ireland's defeat by New Zealand in November."

As he proved with the Lions, Wood relishes the underdog role but he is also a realist where Ireland are concerned. "It's been very tough for us recently. I got into trouble before the New Zealand game when I said we wouldn't beat them. But I was being honest - we haven't had too many wins over the last two years and that's sapped our confidence. Also, we've got a lot of new young players coming into the side.

"We didn't run out of steam against them - they couldn't score in the last 15 minutes. They had their purple patch for half an hour from just before half-time. Suddenly they changed their style totally and it threw us. Very few sides are capable of doing that; we definitely aren't.

"Anyway, too many internationals are being played. An international is very special, but that disappears if you saturate the aura surrounding it. Seven a season is the right number. You should play an absolute maximum of 35 games in a season - club and international."

Even though Wood, whose father was also a Lion, is contracted to Quins for three more seasons, he is already contemplating life after rugby. "I worked for a bank in Ireland before coming here but I don't know whether I'll go back to that. I can't see myself playing much beyond the age of 28 or 29. I really ought to think about what I'm going to do then." A question Will Carling is now addressing.