Rugby Union: Wood primed for heavy duty forward conflict

Chris Hewett meets the Lions hooker relishing rugby union's front- row hell in South Africa
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Keith Wood resigned himself weeks ago to a staple South African diet of scrummages from hell, big hits from Hades and a thousand boots- and-all rucks from the nether reaches of the abyss. So much for the training sessions; the matches, of course, will be far more physical.

All of which raises a rather serious question, given the 25-year-old Irishman's injury record - a tale of anguished misery that makes EastEnders look like Fawlty Towers. How can any hooker hope to cut the mustard in the shop window of heavy duty front-row engagement with shoulders that splinter almost at will? Was there not a time this season when he felt like saying: "That's one bad injury too many. Let's call it day."

The "no, never" reply could not have been more emphatic, despite the fact that the latest in a seemingly endless catalogue of depressing setbacks - a shoulder dislocation in the match with France in January - may conceivably have cost Wood the Lions captaincy. "A Lions trip is every player's ambition," he said in Durban this week, "but I can honestly say that had there been the slightest doubt in my mind about lasting the distance, I wouldn't have gone near the plane. It would have hurt me to pull out, of course, but I'd have done it. I wouldn't have contemplated coming here if I'd had even the faintest suspicion that I might not be up to it.

"This is not the place to visit if you're not sure of your fitness, because you know full well how physical South African rugby can be: the hits are getting harder and harder generally - it's far tougher now than when I first broke into top rugby back in '92, but these guys are out there in front. If you add to that the rivalry inside the Lions squad, where the only Test certainty is Martin Johnson and everyone else is scrapping for a place, you get an idea of the intensity we face over the next seven weeks or so.

"I certainly expect an incredibly competitive atmosphere to be generated at training as the big games start to close in, but I hope it doesn't get out of hand. There is no point at all in letting inter-personal rivalry sour the spirit in the squad. Let's face it, we're in it together as a party."

The prospect of Wood not being in it at all was one of the most pressing concerns for the selectors as they pieced together the personnel jigsaw, and when their man came through five full-on league matches for Harlequins in the breathless space of 14 days in April, the sigh of relief from Chateau Cotton had more of the hurricane than the gentle zephyr about it. By pitching him straight into today's tour opener in Port Elizabeth, the managerial contingent have supplemented the player's forthright confidence with a liberal helping of their own.

Born in Limerick, Wood inherited some 24-carat rugby genes from his late father Gordon, a stalwart of the local Garryowen front row who went on to prop the Lions scrum in two Tests in New Zealand's South Island in 1959. What Wood Jnr did not inherit was his father's prized red shirt, but he recently spotted it hanging on the wall of the Lansdowne club in Dublin. It was an emotional moment for him, both a reminder of his roots and an intimation of possible glories to come.

After helping the family club to All Ireland league titles in 1992 and 1994, Wood drew a deep breath and moved to Harlequins for his first season as a full-time professional.

"People asked me what the hell I thought I was doing," he admitted. "They wondered why someone they considered the most Irish of Irishmen would think for a second about joining what they believed to be the snottiest, snobbiest club in England, the side even other English clubs fell over themselves to beat.

"But I have to say that I enjoyed Quins immensely last season, largely for the simplest but deepest of reasons: friendship. I liked some of the guys a great deal, especially Jason Leonard and Jim Staples, my fellow Irishman, and that attracted me. I'm as serious as the next guy about my rugby but you have to relax, don't you? These were people I felt comfortable with and could enjoy working and playing alongside."

Like many of his fellow Lions tight forwards, Wood senses a lack of respect from the South Africans as the Test build-up moves into overdrive. "The Springboks appear to presume that we have a weakness in the front five, owing, apparently, to our lack of bulk and that if they apply pressure in that area, as they are bound to do, we will crack. Well, it won't surprise them to hear me say that they can start thinking again. There is an awful lot of talk in the southern hemisphere about the Super 12, but we're not here to emulate that. We're Lions and we're above that level.

"Actually, I'm not completely sold on what I've seen of the Super 12. I'm impressed by much of it, yes, but I don't know how entertaining a match that finishes, say, 50-37, really is.

"From where I'm standing, if you concede 37 points to anyone it's not exactly a good day at the office. In fact, I'd be pretty jacked off at letting 37 slip through because I tend to spit nails every time my side concedes a single point. I'd be in a rare old state, wouldn't I?"

That uncompromising attitude makes a fit Wood an even-money favourite to win a Test cap in Cape Town on 21 June, when he might confront any one of James Dalton, Chris Rossouw or Naka Drotske - serious competitors all.

After such merciless misfortune, it is good to see Wood relishing the challenge and, just for once, paying attention to the neglected art of self-preservation, too.

"Do you think we might talk in the shade?" he asked as the temperature gauge moved into the 80s.

"I'm frightened of burning my bald patch. It's the only part of me that's injury free, you know."