The Rugby World Cup: A rock for the hardest places

The Talisman: Keith Wood of Ireland; Hugh Godwin studies the special appeal of the life and soul of Irish rugby

GEORGE BEST in his pomp would have identified with Keith Wood. Both of them talented, both charismatic crowd-pleasers, both Irish and both chronic under-achievers at international level. At least Wood, barring an accident in the next seven days, is getting to play in his second World Cup.

Sad to relate, incidents and accidents and Keith Wood have been regular bedfellows during an international career spanning more than five years but only 27 caps for Ireland. His previous World Cup, in 1995, lasted all of nine minutes of the pool match with Japan; there have been serious injuries to both shoulders; and last season there was a spat with the Irish Rugby Football Union over contractual terms. Despite by common consent being one of the finest hookers of his generation, Wood has finished on the losing side 21 times in those 27 Irish appearances.

The flip side to this tale was the Lions tour of 1997. In the company of like-minded men, whole-hearted individuals who enjoy the winning a little more than they do the taking part, Wood was right at home. The fly-on-the-wall television documentary, Living with the Lions, captured him in all his glory. The joker on the treatment bench, the life and soul of the kangaroo court and the head- down, bum-up inspiration of the front row. For once Wood had the luxury of squaring up to quality opposition without fearing an unequal battle.

Andy Keast, the technical adviser to the Lions, was also Wood's coach at Harlequins for two seasons. "He joined in 1996 and it was a bit of a gamble after his shoulder operation," Keast recalled. "But the club finished third in the league that season and Woody went on to a fantastic tour with the Lions.

"The one thing you get from him, on and off the field, is commitment. By his own admission he has not always been at peak fitness because of the injuries; he has rarely been an 80-minute player. But he is all or nothing in the way he plays. People questioned his scrummaging but he proved them wrong with the Lions. I remember a couple of scrum sessions with Jim Telfer when Woody's eyes were all but popping out of his head. But he came through."

A year after the Lions' 2-1 series win, Wood was back in South Africa with Ireland. The day Ireland headed out from Pretoria after the brutal Second Test the Press met Wood at the bar. He had been targeted by the Boks, although unquestionably he had been on the wind-up trail before the match. But he took his treatment with scarcely a whisper of complaint, at least in public.

What a guy he must be to have in your side; on your side, in fact. That is why Wood is a crowd-pleaser. At times he has been guilty of taking too much upon himself at the expense of the sensible pass or field position. In Wood's defence, this tendency may have been forced upon him over the years by a subconscious fear of releasing the ball to Ireland's substandard backs; or perhaps he is just a gloriously headstrong nutcase with the ball in his hands. But like a high- wire walker, the moment you take your eyes off him could be the moment you regret.

A year ago Wood refused to sign his IRFU contract but the Union stood firm and Wood, or the "millionaire from Clare" as some wags dubbed him, eventually backed down. He missed the World Cup qualifier against Georgia but was back as a replacement against Romania and in from the start in the 13-27 defeat by the Springboks in late November. Playing for his country, he said, was the most important thing, and he was satisfied that he had made a point. Perhaps he had also realised that Keith Wood the club player had less appeal than Keith Wood of Ireland, or Keith Wood the World Cup star.

This season his club will be Garryowen. Again, Wood has gone down the unconventional route, initiating a move back to his former club on loan from Harlequins. He will play for Munster in the European Cup and, if all goes according to plan, return to Quins next autumn.

In the meantime, and despite their dismal record of late, it is not the stuff of fantasy that the Irish could reach their first World Cup semi- final, albeit that it would probably require a first win over France since 1983. Perhaps Wood has had a few punts on it. He still owes his old coach Keast pounds 100 after failing to land a dropped goal as promised in the 1997- 8 season. Keast doesn't begrudge him for a moment, and neither will the Irish public if Wood continues to wear his heart on his sleeve.

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