Keith Wood: We are better than the rest and victory is in our hands

Brian Viner Interviews: Ireland's former captain explains why they will win the Six Nations and why England are still suffering from their pursuit of World Cup glory at all costs
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Even in an expensive corduroy jacket, 35-year-old Keith Wood still looks more like a rugby player than a businessman, but it is in the handsome Georgian offices of his property company Touch Wood International that we meet, the boss with his broad back to the window, which overlooks Richmond Green in south-west London. The weak sun of a late January morning glints off the familiar bald pate, as in the soft accent of his native County Clare, and with a very slight lisp, Ireland's heroic former captain considers his country's chances in the forthcoming Six Nations Championship.

"They've been sort of favourites for the last three or four years and everybody has built up the hype, mea culpa as well. We've only had one Grand Slam, in 1948, so it isn't as if it's something we're used to, but this year I think there's a really good chance. In the last few years we've had the opportunity, but we've been relying on other teams not to play at their best, wishing for other things to happen. We don't have to wish for that now. I think we're better than the other teams, and it's in our own hands."

Wood captained Ireland in thinner times, although he is generally credited with starting, with the then coach Warren Gatland, the rejuvenation that has made the Irish 6-4 favourites to head into this year's World Cup as Six Nations champions. Yet when his compatriots hunker down against Wales at the Millennium Stadium on Sunday, will he not be twitching in his seat, throwing every line-out and contesting every ruck?

"No, I was very comfortable stopping [in 2003]. My body was a ruin. I look at how the team has progressed since not with envy; I have never wished to play again, and even before I started playing for Ireland I was never a fan, in the sense that I never turned up to watch. I played hurling, soccer and rugby at all age levels, but I was never into that idea of going to matches and living vicariously. Also, I'm delighted to see Jerry Flannery [Woods' successor as hooker, who will be on the bench on Sunday] doing so well. He was a revelation last year. Who's that novelist who spent his whole life working to be an overnight success? That's like Jerry. He burst on to the scene at 26 or 27, but he had worked up to it. Seeing a player of that quality coming into your own position is very heartening, actually."

Similarly heartening is the spectacle of Brian O'Driscoll fulfilling his old captaincy duties. "I remember when Brian first arrived on the scene, at 18 or 19. He was unbelievably shy, but incredibly confident in his own ability. The obvious relish with which he plays is a joy to see. I always wanted to train better, harder, than anybody else, and I felt I did that until Brian came along and set a different standard. It was almost a generational thing. Even though we played together for years and I'm not a whole lot older than him, he is in many ways the embodiment of the new international rugby player. There was no amateur game for him as there was for me. We had a lot of fun in the early days, which had to stop to some degree."

What sort of fun? A grin. "Oh, like the poisoning of new caps, you know." Were there any memorably epic cases? "A few, yeah. Austin Healey [on a Lions tour] had a very good poisoning." A bigger grin. "But nobody was too bothered about that."

He is not the first member of the Wood family to have fun on Lions tours. His father, Gordon, a tight-head prop, played on the 1959 tour to New Zealand, but later died when his youngest son was only 10, so Wood has always been hungry for stories of the old man. Not a few of them came from the late Richard Harris, once a classmate of Gordon's.

"I remember before my first time on the bench for Ireland in 1992, against Australia, I went into dinner on the Friday night and Richard Harris was sitting there. I had met him years before, but I sat down for a chat with him and he told me lots of stories of the Forties and Fifties. After that I met him time and time again. We got on very well, and I ended up ringing him the day before he passed away. I was having a dinner in London, and I knew that as a total rugby nut he would like to have gone along.

"We used to have him and Peter O'Toole popping into the changing-room at Twickenham, and actually the boys don't like that, because they don't know how they're supposed to react. If you've lost, should you be delighted to see them? No, the dressing-room's a very private place, and for anyone to come in feels like an intrusion. I loved it afterwards, that these two great luvvies had been in, but not so much at the time. We had [the Taoiseach] Bertie Ahern in after we beat England in 2001, and we just slagged him off. Sure, we just gave him a bit of a ribbing. But he took it unbelievably well."

I ask Wood whether he would like his sons - he has three, all under four - to continue the dynasty started by his father? "I don't know. I was very fortunate to come across a surgeon, Ian Bayley, who effectively added eight years to my career. If I got injured, I never worried. But it's very difficult looking at your kids with that same recklessness. If they want to play, great. But I'd be just as happy for them to play soccer, or a Gaelic game."

The oldest of Wood's boys, Alexander, was born two days after Keith's older brother, Gordon, died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack in September 2002, pitching him into a maelstrom of emotions that became even more turbulent when his mother died a few months later. His brother was only 41, and indeed his father was only 50 when he passed away, and so I ask, as sensitively as I can, whether he frets about his own mortality?

"I have fairly extensive medicals," he says. "I'm in OK condition, and from being a pretty hefty drinker, I'm, well I'm not teetotal, I like to drink some red wine and have an odd pint, but I drink very little now." He reflects with engaging candour on his brother's death and then, returning to the matter of his own fitness, gives a little chuckle. "There's a great Steve Redgrave plan, a de-training plan [recommended for sportspeople winding down slowly after years of intensive training], which I read about and was truly inspired until I found out it was rubbish. He did it for about four weeks, but couldn't sustain that amount of work. I actually stopped training for a year and a half, and felt so much better. I was tired, actually."

Although he doesn't miss it, he enjoyed the technicalities of playing in the front row. "But it's also very primal, the only element of rugby where you're in a physical confrontation with the same person every time, with a slot for your head to go. The amount of pressure is unbelievable - it's been measured at up to two tons of pressure - and as a result there's hardly any chat in there. There used to be a lot more, when front rows did nothing but truck from scrum to ruck, but now you're tired all the time. I remember a coach telling me to sprint from the scrum. I said 'I am sprinting'. He said, 'You're walking'. I said, 'Maybe, but my body thinks its sprinting'."

He cites the squat Welshman Garin Jenkins as his trickiest opponent. "He lived and died for the scrum and was the most awful fella to scrummage against, only 5ft 7in, and unbelievably annoying. And I had some huge battles with the French. I've an objection to subs, because I think elements of it are unfair, and France are the embodiment of that. You'd play against a huge square French front row, work your butt off for 60 minutes, then just as you're getting the better of them, they take all three of them off and bring on three equally square scrummagers for the last 20 minutes. It used to break my heart."

The French, he thinks, will probably mount the strongest challenge to the Irish in the Six Nations, but what of England, whose new coach, Brian Ashton, was once in charge of Ireland? Does Wood see him as the man to inject new hope into the faltering world champions?

"Well, Brian knows how he wants the game to be played, but that's difficult if you don't have the raw talent to deliver it. It will be a difficult process for him. He didn't have a good time in Ireland; he was the wrong man for the job, a guy we wouldn't really have known and who didn't know us. He wasn't living in Ireland, didn't have a great appreciation of the Irish game, and we all know how bloody strange we are as a race. But I think he'd be excellent for Ireland now. At the time it was too early for him to be of value. We weren't even a team in transition, we were a team in confusion, still trying to get to grips with professionalism. A structure much lauded now was a shambles then, so to bring a guy in who wasn't intimately involved with Irish rugby ... it was a nigh-on impossible job, and I think a chastening experience for him.

"With the fine benefit of hindsight, Warren Gatland then came in and was everything Brian was not. Although not Irish, he knew Irish rugby well, and recognised that we didn't have the talent to play the expansive game that Brian wanted. We needed a simplistic game plan, and consistency of selection, which was in stark contrast to what Brian did.

"But I like Brian and I have an awful lot of respect for him. He's an excellent man to have a rugby conversation with, and all the things that weren't right for him in Ireland are comfortably rectified for him in England. He's primarily a good, practical backs coach, which doesn't mean he's not a head coach, but he maybe needs someone to work with him. He's not a front-office guy."

As for England's travails, Wood is downright poetic. "They made a Faustian pact. They sold their soul to win the World Cup with an ageing group of players, and now they're suffering for it. The devil has come back for his dues. I know that's melodramatic, but ... I felt sorry for the young guys, coming into an English team as a centre or a winger when four or five guys around you don't have any caps either. That's so daunting. People say international rugby is just a small step above the Heineken Cup, but it's a bloody huge step.

"Holding on to ageing players for the World Cup was justified, because they won the World Cup, but to get rid of them all immediately afterwards was wrong, because below them was a vacuum of players with the requisite experience. In international rugby, passion, strength and determination will only get you so far. You need experience as well. So I think England are at the start of a road, but the road is to the next World Cup, not this one."

And first there is the small matter of the Six Nations. Bring it on, says Wood.

Keith Wood's Six Nations Predictions

Ireland to win, maybe a Grand Slam, followed by France, Wales, England, Scotland, Italy.

Ireland I know it's a desperate cliché, but they have to focus on the Welsh game, not start thinking about Grand Slams and World Cups. That would be a slippery slope.

France You never know with them. They have the talent, but it's more a question of whether they have the will.

Wales They have a great style all of their own, flinging the ball all over the place. It would have terrified me as a player.

England It will be very difficult for them, but having Jonny [Wilkinson] in the side is a huge boost, and they have to keep Phil Vickery fit. They have precious few leaders.

Scotland They could do well. It's much more comfortable for them having a Scotsman, Frank Hadden, in charge of the team.

Italy I can see Italy taking a scalp or two, especially with [Pierre] Berbizier as coach. He's one of the shrewdest guys around, one of those rare people to have captained and coached a Grand Slam side.

Keith Wood is part of the BBC team providing live and exclusive coverage of the Six Nations, starting tomorrow

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