Irish rugby legend and Lions hero Keith Wood was good enough to talk to us yesterday at a pre-Six Nations event hosted by Bushmills whisky. Here’s what he had to say about the forthcoming international series and the prospects for the Lions Tour this summer.
Trying to make predictions before the first round of the Six Nations is almost impossible – how do you know which teams are going to turn up? Italy have picked Bergamasco at scrum-half! Who knows how they are going to play?
I think the table will finish Wales, Ireland, France, England, Scotland, Italy. The top three are interchangeable and I know that is ‘sitting-on-the-fence’ nonsense, but it is so difficult to predict.
A word of caution for those playing in the SuperBru predictions league. Do you think Ireland can finally deliver on their potential?
Well they are known as the Golden Generation, but I think this could well be their year. A lot of the players won’t be around next year, but they do have a real chance this time.
Wales have a tough draw this year with their opening fixture at Murrayfield, so can they live up to their billing as favourites?
You know what? Wales don’t like that game. I have to admit I never liked playing in Edinburgh. It always rained, I always threw badly and I just found it really hard. We always went there with high expectations and they always ransacked us, so Wales won’t have an easy time.
Which players should we watch out for in the Irish side?
If he gets a chance to play…Keith Earls from Munster. I don’t know where he’s going to play, but I’d say he’s more of a 13 than a 15 and he just has something special. I used to play against his father, who was a cracking number 7 – that really makes me feel old. Keith has to get a chance at some stage, but probably not instead of O’Driscoll – I can see Brian moving to 12 actually and Keith at 13.
Will Declan Kidney really move O’Driscoll?
Who knows? Kidney has a different mind. He has a very different way of looking at things. He used to drive me up the wall at Munster, but then he would always deliver and his team would deliver. Every time.
And what do you make of England’s plight at the moment?
When you look at the 2003 side, that was a great team, full of great players – compare that with this side and it’s a good team with good players. There’s no point in slagging off the managers for not picking the right players – the players just aren’t there. It’s just a hard time at the moment and I don’t mean to sound patronising, but I know what it’s like. I played through hard times with Ireland and you just have to stand up and be counted, play with pride and give it everything.
To get that sort of attitude from a whole team takes real leadership and that seems to be lacking at the moment.
There has been so much chopping and changing recently, but you have to build a team around certain players. In Ireland, the team is built around Paul O’Connell, David Wallace in the back row, Ronan O’Gara and Brian O’Driscoll in the backs, and they are world class players and the spine of the team. Then you look at England and you ask, who are you building the team around? That’s a hard question to answer.
Andy Goode? Thankfully, all those players will come together in the summer in the Lions jersey.
Yep, they’ll kick the cr*p out of each other in the next few weeks and then play on the same team. It’s absolute magic, I love the Lions. It’s one of two things in sport that are just different: the Lions Tour and the Ryder Cup. Absolutely unique. As I always joked with Jason Leonard, I was kicking him last week and he was holding me up this week.
Who do you think is the right man to bring all these players together and lead the side?
We have the right coaches, but in terms of the captain, I really don’t know. There are a few players that the compass is pointing towards – I nearly said Alethiometer then. The captaincy is very open and it depends on how their team performs and how they perform within their teams. If you have a guy who plays for 5 weeks but only plays OK, I don’t think you make him captain.
What is your favourite Lions memory, on the pitch to start with?
I got kicked in the groin by Fritz van Heerden with about a minute and a half to go in the second Test in South Africa, and I actually tore my groin trying to get out of the way. I was in agony, so when the final whistle went, everyone was jumping up and down except me, who was practically in tears!
About five minutes before that, I had hoofed the ball upfield and I became the fastest man on the field. I was the fastest man because I thought, “You fookin’ eejit, look what you’ve done!” and I had to get there. Just as I got to their full-back, he taps the ball into touch and I was 2 yards away and just fell over because I’m completely wrecked. I threw the ball into the line and after that I had nothing more to give.
And how about your favourite memory off the pitch? It must have been the same day?
Yes. It was unbelievable. Absolutely fantastic. I can’t really say any more!
Who is the best Lions tourist that you played with?
I roomed with Tom Smith on two Lions tours. Iconic is the word. People say he doesn’t speak much – he does, but he chooses his words very carefully. He was great fun.
How about if you had to pick one player from each country?
I’d say Tom, and I’d say Ieuan Evans who was my Tour Father. I call him Dad and he still calls me Son. Matt Dawson calls me Dad and I call him Son, and he calls Ieuan Granddad! From England though, I spent a lot of time with Jason Leonard, or I might even pick Johnno. In 2001, I got to know him really well and he’s a really interesting bloke. Not that you’d know it – he doesn’t tell anyone anything!
Keith Wood was speaking to The Rugby Blog at a Bushmills-sponsored event. The whisky brand is the ‘Official Spirit of Irish Rugby’, which is a cracking title, and they are also sponsoring the British and Irish Lions. Visit www.bushmills.com for more details.