Rugby Union: Wood gives in for love of green shirt

KEITH WOOD may not be overjoyed at the prospect of spending the next 12 months at the beck and call of the Irish Rugby Football Union's promotions department, especially as they could theoretically ask him to open every new supermarket between Carrickfergus and Castlegregory for the princely sum of pounds 5,000.

But the lure of the green shirt is stronger than any point of principle, it appears. Everyone's favourite hooker was expected to make his peace with the governing body by applying his thumb print to the union's controversial international contract last night before training with the squad in County Wicklow today.

Wood had originally refused to have anything to do with the deal, claiming it represented an infringement of his "intellectual property rights" - fine words indeed for a front-row forward. His stance was both high-profile and solitary - the rest of the Irish squad duly put pen to paper - and as a result he was omitted from his country's 26-man party for the World Cup qualifiers with Romania and Georgia, losing the captaincy to Paddy Johns in the process.

However, a shoulder injury suffered by Alan Quinlan, the Munster flanker, has created a vacancy in the squad, hence Wood's scheduled appearance on the training field at Greystones RFC this morning. He may yet face the Romanians, thanks to Ross Nesdale's dodgy hamstring, but whatever the role he plays at Lansdowne Road this weekend, he will almost certainly be on parade for the Grand Slam-chasing Springboks at the same venue in 11 days' time.

World Cup qualifying business resumes tonight in both Dublin, where the Romanians and Georgians contest one automatic place in next year's finals, and in Huddersfield, where Italy and the Netherlands do something similar, presumably in front of a non- existent audience.

Italy intend to field eight of the side that out-muscled Argentina in Piacenza earlier this month, including Massimo Giovanelli, their experienced flanker and captain, and the two half-backs, Alessandro Troncon and Diego Dominguez.

Georges Coste's side may not break the three-figure barrier, as those vindictive English bullies did last weekend, but they will still be far too handy for a Dutch team who must now be wondering whether rugby is such a great game after all. The likes of Paulo Vaccari, Marcello Cuttitta and Valter Cristofoletto may be sitting this one out, but any side able to introduce so accomplished a full-back as Matthew Pini, the former Wallaby Test cap who now plays his rugby at Richmond and qualifies for the Azzuri through Italian grandparents, can expect a comfortable evening's stroll at the McAlpine Stadium.

Talking of Wallabies, the current batch of Australian tourists will be asking great things of a heavily remodelled back division when they go toe to toe with France, the European champions, in Paris on Saturday. Chris Latham of Queensland earns a first cap at full-back in place of the injured Matt Burke while Nathan Grey, the New South Wales centre, fills the midfield gap left by the indisposed Tim Horan. Ben Tune's absence from the right wing gives Jason Little, a World Cup winner in 1991, another run in the No 14 shirt.

But from an English point of view - the red roses meet the Australians in something of a grudge match at Twickenham on Saturday week - the addition of Patricio Noriega to the Wallaby scrummage will be of greater interest, not to say concern, than the developments out wide.

Noriega was an influential member of an Argentinian front row that fairly murdered Brian Moore and company during a World Cup pool match in Durban in 1995. Now that he has hoovered up a few Super 12 ball skills and an Australian passport to go with his brute strength, he may prove as sound a Wallaby acquisition as his countryman, Enrique Rodriguez, a decade and a half ago.

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