Rugby Union: Wood's head up at Stoop

Chris Hewett on the Lion who wants to change Harlequins' pussycat image
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Peter Winterbottom tried and failed, Brian Moore was left to gnash the scattered remnants of his dental equipment in bitter frustration and Jason Leonard found the job beyond him. Today, another highly successful and universally respected international forward launches his attempt on south-west London's version of Mission Impossible: to captain Harlequins, the great underachievers of English rugby, to championship glory.

Keith Wood, one of the true stars of the Lions show in South Africa and an irrepressible coaxer and cajoler of his fellow players, has been saddled with a task considered entirely fruitless by virtually everyone outside the confines of the Stoop Memorial Ground.

Every year for the best part of a decade, the swank and showy stylists from "Rugger HQ" have flattered to deceive by stacking their squad with pin-up purchases from home and abroad and making hay in the autumn sunshine before falling apart at the first sign of mud-spattered resistance. "No bottle," say the critics, annually. "No backbone.''

Well, Keith Gerald Mallinson Wood has bottle and backbone by the hundredweight and the Irish hooker plans to impart some of that competitive material to the rest of his squad.

"We did a number of good things last season but failed to keep doing them over the long haul," Limerick's favourite son said yesterday before leaving for this afternoon's intriguing opener at Northampton. "We all know how people perceive Quins - I suppose I had the same preconceived ideas about them myself until I joined last season - but there is only one sure way of changing that perception and that is to win the title.

"Certainly, that is the target I've set myself. I'm not saying we'll achieve it and I don't actually think it would be the end of the world if we failed, but I'd like to see us challenge, not just briefly but throughout the course of the Premiership programme. Why shouldn't we? There are a lot of outstanding players here.''

Wood being the most outstanding of the entire crop, of course. It was no great coincidence that the shoulder injury he suffered during Ireland's opening Five Nations encounter with France in Dublin just after Christmas signalled the start of Quins' slide from championship hopefuls to familiar also-rans.

When he re-emerged in mid-spring to stake his claim for a Lions tour place, Quins ended their league itinerary on the sort of roll with which they began it.

"I'm pleased to be captaining the side; I enjoy the leadership role and it's not as if I'm up there on my own, taking all the decisions and calling all the shots. Any one of three or four candidates could have taken on the responsibility this season - in fact, we have nine players in the squad who have captained their country at one time or another.''

Now that Massimo Cuttitta, the former Italian captain, has joined fellow international prop forwards Leonard and Laurent Benezech in the Quins' front row union, Wood is confident that his side can finally shed its pussycat image in the most competitive physical arena of them all - the scrummage.

And if the Londoners can start punching their now considerable weight in that unforgiving phase of the game, perhaps the pretty boys out wide will finally bring home the bacon.

It would not be before time.