In many ways, Keith Wood remains my favourite rugby player. Yes, Brian O’Driscoll continues to be majestic – we’ll refrain from going into the past tense just yet – and there have been many others equally as influential during Ireland’s greatest era. But there was something extra special about ‘Woody’.
Maybe it was because he didn’t exactly go about things the conventional way. A mirror image of one’s self if you will. When Wood scored a try, it wasn’t your typical forwards rumbling, brute force effort. There were elements of that to his play, as well, of course. The Garryowen man just seemed to add an x-factor to it. He was surely also among the best forwards in the game in terms of his kicking.
The hooker is recalled slotting at least one drop goal – possibly against England. Even that paled, though, compared to the try he produced against the same opposition in 2001. Wood, again, made an ‘ordinary’ score look anything but. That game was played in September due to the quarantine-like conditions necessitated by the onset of Foot and Mouth disease.
Thoughts returned to that match recently. For it formed part of a pattern that has emerged. Namely, that of Ireland playing particularly well on occasions when they actually have little to play for. England were going for a Grand Slam that day – Ireland played brilliant to scupper them. A similar situation occurred much more recently as well.
Which brings us to last Saturday’s draw with France. Cold analysis proves that, apart from an excellent first half against Wales, Ireland’s Championship campaign has been a big disappointment. Often – despite the best efforts of the inspirational, irrepressible O’Driscoll – glaringly lacking leadership.
Taking the captaincy off him was unnecessary and insulting. Foisting it on Jamie Heaslip had a detrimental effect on the latter. Leaving him seemingly unable to make a meaningful contribution. Until, that is, the France game. The sense being that things were done with a sense of abandon. Culminating, ultimately, in the skipper scoring a try. Up to that point, he almost seemed terrified to get the ball.
Ireland’s problems this spring have been plentiful. Not least a plethora of injuries that have devoid management of the core of what would’ve been their first choice selection in an ideal situation. Available resources weren’t best deployed either though, you feel. For that, Declan Kidney is answerable and may pay the ultimate price.
Watch Ireland play France was frustrating. It felt like their entire season synopsised perfectly. In building up a 13-3 lead, they played brilliantly, almost carefree. French rugby isn’t in a good place under Saint Andre, but even still, Ireland looked a different outfit than against England or Scotland.
Paddy Jackson’s kicking game improved markedly too. Commendable character can’t cover chances cough up however. Those sentiments do not, it must be said, relate solely to Jackson. Kidney is highly culpable for throwing the Ulster player in against Scotland. Right, so – as already acknowledged – the fly half’s kicking was much better second time up, but, it’s much easier to at least look comfortable on your own turf. In other words, if Kidney wanted to slot him in, a home match was the place to try it.
You’d have to wonder, too, why Jackson was elevated up the pecking order so quickly. As with the captaincy debacle, the way Ronan O’Gara’s career was more or less ended for him rather than by him was disgraceful. We all know the Munster man’s best days are behind him, but, to have included him in the squad from the off, why not leave him there until the end? Ditching him mid stream was disrespectful to our greatest ever number 10.
With Sexton injured and the latter out of favour, surely either of the Ians, Madigan or Keatley, should have been higher in line than a player who – as has been stated exhaustively – hadn’t even been kicking for his province. However, to my mind at least, Kidney’s biggest – and frankly most unforgivable – faux pas was withdrawing Conor Murray during the France game at a time when Ireland were well on top and Murray was the principal reason why.
This corner would by no means be his biggest fan. In fact, his form has been so poor with Munster by times it was hard to see why he was being selected. Against France, though, he was controlling things. Withdrawing him let a great chance to restore a bit credibility to a bad season slip away.
After the game, of course, all the talk was of whether it would be O’Driscoll’s last outing on home turf. It may well be, though hope will be maintained otherwise. Either way, this team looks in need of new leaders. Sean O’Brien looks the obvious to step up. Indeed, there seems to be a lot of ‘Woody’ in him. The big question is what will the new leader have to lead?