Rugby Union: Wood odds-on to take one against the head

five nations focus: Ireland's new hooker is tipped to give England's Br ian Moore a hard time on Saturday. David Hughes reports

"He can be to Irish rugby what Phil Kearns and Sean Fitzpatrick have been to Australian and New Zealand rugby," his coach, the former All Black Andy Leslie, says. "A truly outstanding prospect," according to Bob Dwyer, the Wallabies coach. They ar e talking about someone making his Five Nations debut against England on Saturday.

At times it is easy to forget that Keith Wood, the man-boy in the middle of the Irish front-row, is still only 22, that his international career has barely taken off. But what a take-off. Two irreverent bows against Australia in the summer, where he traded blows with the mighty Kearns; a belated but shuddering arrival in Munster's all-conquering Grand Slam side this season, and in between he was the central plank in the Barbarians' all-Irish front row which felled South Africa.

In truth, maybe it should have come before now. But Wood was kept at bay last season by the incumbent Munster and Irish hooker, Terry Kingston, when perhaps also there was a subconscious tendency by selectors to keep the Garryowen tearaway wrapped in cotton wool and preserved for this campaign.

No matter the opposition, Wood plays it the same way: all or nothing; fast and furious; very hard, but fair. It is in the genes. He is the youngest son of Gordon Wood, who propped 29 times for Ireland (1954-61) and twice for the Lions in New Zealand ('59). His frighteningly fearless approach has made Leslie wonder aloud if Wood has "any respect for his body".

"I wouldn't go that far," Wood says. "It is actually something I get from my father. I must say I wouldn't like to go out on the field and not give my best. I find that whenever I go near a field in any way lackadaisical, I tend to get injured or you could injure someone, y'know, anything could bloody happen."

He has already shipped his share of knocks. At every pause in the game he is seen crouched down, then stretching his legs or swaying gingerly on his hips.

"I think `Jesus, my back is at me'. Then I get the ball. Off you go for 10 yards and you don't feel a thing. Then you stop and think: `Jesus, it's at me again','' he says, in mild wonderment himself. The explanation is simple enough. "I love running. I'dbe a liar if I said I didn't."

Born to run, and born to play rugby. Wood was 10 when his father passed away, 21 years after Gordon Wood's last cap. There are no memories of seeing him play, and no videos in their absence. However, by playing for Garryowen, Munster and Ireland (only the Lions to come?), he poignantly follows in his father's footsteps.

"It's a huge source of pride. It's a pleasure to stop and talk to people who knew him, to hear about him and his deeds. The more I hear about him the better I feel, and everybody has great respect for him, which is lovely."

Not that all the early signs were auspicious. He was a small and unexceptional half-back at St Munchin's in Limerick - "as bad a scrum-half as could be" and "too greedy at out-half".

After an unremarkable switch to hooker in his final school year, his latent talent was developed at Garryowen, where he came under the wing of their inspirational Kiwi No 8, Brent Anderson, in the club's 1992 All-Ireland league-winning side.

The climb since then has been inexorable, culminating in his breakthrough Down Under. That was an eye-opener, figuratively, and almost literally, leading to the less than flattering moniker of Fester, after the mad, bald uncle in the Addams Family.

"Before the first match I got my head virtually shaved, so I almost had the dome of a head that Fester has," Wood explained. "Then we played the first match and I got a cut over the eye [requiring 17 stitches] and two black eyes. So with the black eyes, the big cheeks and the bald head, I got Fester. And I can't get rid of it."

Wood returned home straining at the leash, eager to put into practice the training methods he had discovered in Australia. But a shoulder injury set him back, prompting the self-critical analysis of his form as "moderate".

It did not show against the South Africans - "the best atmosphere and the least preparation. It was basic as possible. Robert Jones was superb and another factor was them scoring so soon. It jolted us into action and we closed up straight away. Suddenly we were like a club side."

This weekend England come calling. "This match will answer an awful lot. Our average age must have dropped three or four years since last year, with five new under-23s in the team. We have an awful lot to prove in the Irish team, and as individuals."

Wood, his reputation preceding him along with that of a relatively new but celebrated front row, makes his Five Nations bow against Brian Moore. "This match has been hyped up into a battle of the front rows, and within that a battle between myself and Brian Moore.

"But no match is that simple and I genuinely never concentrate on my opposite number. People keep saying it to me, like they're expecting fireworks. Whether they'll be disappointed or not, I don't know. Maybe there'll be a bit of fireworks."

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