'We have lost a legend. He cannot be replaced'

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The Independent Online

They bade him farewell, like a much-loved soldier. Strong men wrapped their arms around him, the expressions of respect told it all. No tears, no obvious emotion on the field of honour.

But once the great and the glorious Keith Wood had departed a rugby ground for the last time, the mask cracked. The man who had contested thousands of rucks and mauls, hammered whole armies of opponents back in the tackle all over the world, simply melted into the arms of emotion. He could not do a television interview; the tide of tears was too forceful.

So 24 hours after the great Springbok Joost Van der Westhuizen had disappeared into the sunshine of retirement on the Melbourne ground, Ireland's greatest talisman followed him.

I don't know about the good but the great are disappearing as fast as the myth of hot Australian summers, from this World Cup. As Ireland's coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, put it so aptly, "We have just lost a legend from the game. It is a very special day not just for Irish but world rugby. Keith cannot be replaced. He came through hell and high water just to be here but it is a measure of the man that he came back from his injuries."

For Garryowen, for Munster; for Harlequins, for Ireland and the Lions, Wood has been the epitome of what great rugby men should be.

Ferociously hard and committed on the field, a leader of men and and mortals. Off the field, one of the greatest ambassadors the game has known, a man of charm, courtesy and standards. No wonder a cluster of hard-bitten journalists from across the globe stood up and applauded as Wood left a post-match press conference for the last time.

He was not the only one with a tear in his eye. As France's articulate coach, Bernard Laporte, said: "We have to congratulate Keith Wood for his contribution to the game. He has not just been a good player but a great man."

It was always pre-ordained to end like this, in crushing defeat for Ireland, once they had allowed what ought to have been a clear victory over Australia last weekend to slip through their fingers. And, truth to tell, Wood has been living on borrowed time, the bone shuddering impacts from a thousand hits having come close to wrecking his body. He fought back, typically, from serious neck and shoulder injuries through recent years. How he ever got fit for one last hurrah at this World Cup only he and his surgeon will know.

But as Wood admitted: "My desire is still there, I would like to play on for another 10 years. The heart and head is willing, but the body has had enough.

"Another bad shoulder injury is one waiting to happen. I am lucky to get out before it becomes an absolute mess. I have been privileged to play for so long for my country."

Wood retires from all rugby because he physically cannot go on. It was a special moment when he and the also-retiring French captain Fabien Galthie embraced warmly at the end of France's romp to the semi-finals.

As befits the man, Wood preferred to think more about his great friend's farewell than his own. "I gave Fabien sincere wishes that he retires with the trophy. It would do that man justice if he walks away with the World Cup."

Wood walked away with a bloodied graze on his head, aching limbs and a heavy heart. But also with much to be proud of. He cannot contemplate the horrors of becoming a coach, but promised he will return to the game, at some place in some form, after the break which he richly deserves.

Rugby football of the future will need people like him. Men of values, who understand the rich fabric of respect and decency that has always run through this game and can inculcate it to future generations.

O'Sullivan conceded that he had always felt Wood was mis-judged by many people. "Ball under his arm, charging wildly at the opposition - people thought that was Keith Wood start and finish," he said. "But the reality is, he has been the identikit of a professional rugby player." And, he might have added, a hell of a man.