Sidelined, saddened but still unbowed


RUGBY: Gerry Thornley talks to Ireland captain Keith Wood about a year of injury frustration that still paled in comparison to his personal loss away from the game

For Keith Wood it was the worst of years, and in one respect the best of years. He became a dad, yet lost a brother and his mother. In the circumstances, the frustrations of an injury-bedevilled rugby year paled into insignificance. It is, after all, only a game.

In recent months rugby took a back seat, with supportive figures such as Eddie O'Sullivan and the Harlequins chief executive, Mark Evans, merely saying, "Come back when you're ready." It was, Wood admits, almost a blessing to be injured, allowing him to train from his family home in Killaloe for three weeks before returning again for a few days around Christmas.

"It allowed me to come back to Ireland and have three weeks with the rest of my family to try and come to terms with it, because deaths happen all the time and you don't think about it for yourself, and you don't go through how difficult it is for other people. But when it happens close to you, it doesn't matter how strong or how tough you think you are, it is devastating for yourself and all those around you."

To begin with, Wood prefers to review his rugby year, such as it was. His sense of frustration over missing nine of Ireland's 13 Test matches in 2002 was made more acute because the year began with a new coach in charge.

O'Sullivan pinpointed Ireland's defence as a key area in need of improvement, and Wood concurred, although a new system would need time to bed down. "We were heavily exposed by England and France, who were baying for blood because we had beaten them the previous year. Having said that we won the other three (Six Nations) games comfortably, without getting the credit we deserved."

Wood had returned for the French game and was on board for the tour to New Zealand, although he had misgivings about the tour initially.

"But by the time we played I was dying to go there. I'd never toured there and had I finished my career without touring New Zealand, it would have been a bit pretty big hole on the oul' CV."

A meeting between players and O'Sullivan in Cork, a few weeks before the tour, agreed that new standards had to be set - "especially upping the standard of our training", says Wood. "That was a key point."

It was a good tour. The squad, says Wood, never trained better. For all the foreboding, Timarua turned out to be a lovely starting point. The downers were the Test results.

"We were very close to winning the first Test and maybe should have. I thought we played very well for a long period of time in the second Test under a barrage from New Zealand. We didn't come away beaten into the floor, but we didn't come away with an exalted view of ourselves either. We came away knowing that there was a damn sight more that had to be done."

Wood would only play one of the six early-season internationals - the first World Cup qualifier away to Russia in Krasnoyarsk. "That was an experience, and they were the biggest team I've played against. We basically did a job, and that was that, and the following week we did the same against Georgia. But they were potential banana skins."

The leaking disc in his neck, exacerbated by the flight home from Siberia, ruled Wood out of the Georgia game and ultimately sidelined him for the three autumn internationals, despite one attempted comeback game for Harlequins.

He watched the Australia game at his home with baby Alexander on his lap, and describes it as "far and away my best memory, and I think, the best rugby moment of the year".

Wood singles out the back row, the renaissance of Victor Costello, the performance of Shane Byrne, and the way Brian O'Driscoll assumed the captaincy as effortlessly as he does everything else.

"I just think he's the best rugby player I've ever played with, of that I've no doubt; he's the best rugby player I've ever seen play for Ireland and he's the best player in the world without a shadow of a doubt."

Wood admits he would have been reluctant to heap such weighty eulogies on the young O'Driscoll a few years ago, "but he's since shown that he's able to handle a whole variety of pressures. I think he did an excellent job in the autumn."

Contrary to popular perception, O'Driscoll's captaincy and Byrne's performances didn't intensify the pressure on Wood. Quite the opposite. "I actually felt under less pressure to come back. It meant I could take time coming back and not force it."

Analysing his physical well-being is one thing, but Wood's personal emotional rollercoaster of a year saw him first lose his brother Gordon two days before the September meeting with Romania.

"That was very, very tough for a few reasons. His son (David, 7) was going to be mascot for the match in Limerick and Gordon was quite excited about that.

"It was going to be a nice, big family day, but then he died suddenly of a heart attack on the Thursday before the game. At least all the family were around and we were immediately out there, but it was very sad. The Irish team all turned up in the church in Killaloe on the night before the match, a tribute which was felt very keenly by all the family."

On reflection, even allowing for his troublesome neck/shoulder problem, Wood admits his head wasn't right training and playing in the weeks following Gordon's funeral. A trip home with his new baby and a bit of time with the family did the trick.

"Mum hadn't been well, she'd had a stroke in the summer, though she'd made an excellent recovery. But she wasn't bounding down the street full of energy and she just wasn't feeling fantastic.

"We'd organised to come back a second time to spend some time with her and to give her a lift with the baby. But unfortunately we didn't get back for a second time and mum died suddenly on the morning of the Argentinian game. I was back in London, just getting myself organised to watch the game when I heard at about 1.0. We were back in Killaloe by 5.0 and it was unbelievably sad, obviously. I think we still hadn't got over Gordon. It fairly knocked us for six."

Of some comfort was the support of family, friends and public. "It's amazing the amount of goodwill there was, and the amount of letters that people spent time writing was incredible. You understand how good people are when something bad happens."

Yet, in the midst of so much loss, two days after his brother died, Wood's wife Nicola gave birth to their first child. Alexander John Mallinson Wood. Another bald wonder. Wood returned to London that day but missed the birth by a couple of hours.

"I'm there looking at Alexander and he's brilliant, and I'm still kind of confused as to how happy I'm supposed to be or feel. It almost took a few weeks for the happiness of that to settle in. In a lot of ways the joy of the birth was tempered with Gordon passing away."

The year 2002 has reminded Wood of the true meaning of words such as disaster and tragedy.

"I feel, at the end of it all, our family is still very close and probably even closer having gone through so much grief.

"On the rugby side of things, all I want to do is get back onto the field," he adds. "There has been talk of my retirement from the game, but I never have too many doubts, even though it (the injury) is in a particularly sensitive area for someone who plays in my position. I've said I will only come back when I'm 100 per cent and the first stage was last week."

He'll be back.

Hits and misses

November 9th: Ireland 18 Australia 9 - It doesn't get much better than beating the world champions, especially after 25 consecutive defeats to Southern Hemisphere teams. Great guts, belief and defence.

March 2nd: Brian O'Driscoll's stunning pick-up and try from his own 22 was the pick of his hat-trick in the 43-22 win over Scotland and probably the individual Irish performance of the year.

April 27th: Munster 25 Castres 17 - After an earlier defeat to Castres, and Castres' contemptible "racist" charges in response to the citing of IasmaelLassissi for biting, vengeance can rarely have tasted better.

August 30th: Malcolm O'Kelly's try against Pontypridd. A new season dawned with Leinster's three musketeers, O'Driscoll, Hickie and D'Arcy running in four tries from everywhere in a 31-18 win. To cap it all, Big Mal galloped in from 40 metres.

December 7th: Denis Hickie's 80th-minute try in the corner. From Nathan Spooner's game-breaking play and, eh, flat pass, Hickie left Richard Cockerill clutching air to earn a 23-20 win away to Montferrand. Leinster had crossed a line.

May 25th: Neil's Back-hander. Munster mightn't have scored, but Back's cheating, his shamelessness and lectures in modern professionalism, plus another final loss for Munster and Claw's last game proved almost too much to bear. Painful.

February 16th: England 45 Ireland 11 - We thought days like this were over. In truth it could have been worse.

October 12th: Munster losing 35-16 to Gloucester - Irish defeats we'd become used to, even Leinster had been mauled in Leicester, but surely not Munster. Anybody but Munster. Roll on Jan 18th.

November 23rd: The Lansdowne Road pitch - Bad enough for the Australian and Fijian games, it plummetted to new depths (!) for the Argentinian farce, almost eradicating the feel-good factor from the win. Embarrassing.

December 7th: David Bory's cheap shot when plunging his knee into the back of Gordon D'Arcy made the stomach churn. Then the unsatisfactory fall-out. Yuk.