|Born||Killaloe, January 27 1972
|Internationals||58 caps between 1994 and 2003
|Inducted||February 27 2010
The following article has been adapted from the original by Dai Llewellyn, which focused on two players. It has been changed to highlight only the selected inductee’s information.
Ireland’s legendary hooker Keith Wood couldn’t be blamed for harbouring miserable memories of Twickenham, having never tasted victory at HQ when wearing the green jersey of his country. Indeed, Wood’s defeats at Twickenham were not confined to internationals, as he recalled.
“I would have to describe Twickenham as a monument to my despair, because I haven’t won there. I have also been beaten in two cup finals, the Heineken Cup and the Tetley’s Bitter Cup in 2001.”
Yet Wood insisted: “I have very fond memories of my first time at Twickenham. It was in 1994, when Ireland beat England and Simon Geoghegan scored in the corner. I didn’t play. I sat on the bench.
“The bench in those days was in the old West Stand, a rickety old wood-panelled part of the stadium. I’ve a feeling it was in front of the Royal Box. I remember I had to keep limiting my enthusiasm for jumping up and down, because I was sitting right in front of Prince Charles; my language was not the best I think.
“There is a spliced photograph of that day, taken by the Irish doctor. He put together two photographs of the changing room after the win. It was very atmospheric: it’s kind of sepia-toned, even though it is a modern-day photograph. It’s an unbelievable photo.
“There is steam rising off the baths and steam coming off the Irish players, who are strewn all over the place. I am in one corner, and nobody, nobody, knows it is me. No one twigs that the player sitting in the background of that photograph is me. I look totally different. At that time I had a full head of black hair, and no one recognises me at all.
“I look at the guys who were playing in the Ireland team then and there were some really good guys in the 1990s. There are a lot of great memories in that photograph.
“The fact that I never came off the bench does not detract from the pleasure I got from being a part of that day. In some ways it made even sitting on the bench seem unbelievably important. You haven’t played, you haven’t been involved, but you have been really touched by the essence of that victory. And I can tell you that on that day without a shadow of a doubt, I was a part of that victory. I thought it was phenomenal. I was 22.”
His playing debut followed later that year on Ireland’s tour of Australia. There was another metamorphosis in Wood’s career that summer Down Under: he was also transformed physically into the readily recognisable shaven-headed figure the rugby world came to know.
“It was that year, 1994. that one of our props, Gary Halpin, shaved my head. Gary was bald and I think he wanted someone to share his shame, so he shaved my head. I got kicked in the face in the first match after that and I got two black eyes, which earned me the nickname of Uncle Fester, after the character in the television programme ‘The Addams Family’. And it stuck.”
So did defeat. The one in 2000 was particularly bad. Ireland were thrashed by England and conceded 50 points for the first time in an international. There was some personal pain and indignity for Wood as well, from his fellow Harlequin, the England prop Jason Leonard.
“The other memory I have of Twickenham is sparked by a picture I have in my house. It was taken during the match in 2000. It shows the England flanker Richard Hill, who is kind of on the ground with me, having half-tackled me, and the prop Jason Leonard is literally strangling me. He has me in a headlock, and the skin of my neck is halfway up my face, it looks like I am being given a facelift. He is choking me.
“At another stage in that same match Jason kicked me in the head at a ruck. I got up and tottered around a bit and Jason walked over to the referee, Derek Bevan of Wales, and said, ‘Referee, I think that player is concussed.’ Thankfully I did not have to go off and I got my revenge: I did a knee drop on him later in the game.
“The previous week I’d been hanging off him in the Harlequins front row. He had looked after me as one of my props for seven years at Quins, and because of that, I think, he decided to kick the living shit out of me on the Twickenham turf.”
It did not get much better later that year. Wood found himself at Twickenham again, as a member of the Munster team contesting the Heineken Cup final against Northampton.
“That year, 2000, I had what I often describe as my worst and best moments in rugby.
“I played for Munster against Northampton in the Heineken Cup final at Twickenham. It was a tense, tight game. A hard game. The ground was really greasy. There were kicks being put over and kicks being missed. And we lost 9-8.
“We were absolutely gutted and we started walking towards the South Stand where there seemed to be a lot of Munster supporters. It was maybe 30 or 40 seconds after the final whistle when suddenly the crowd started to sing ‘The Fields of Athenry’. And the whole crowd joined in. There was a level of empathy between the Munster players and the crowd and I put it down as one of the best moments that I have ever experienced in rugby.
“Even though we had lost the final, a bond had been struck between the Munster players and the supporters that day at Twickenham. It was only going to be a matter of time before that led to a Heineken Cup victory for Munster, because ... it was unbelievable.
“It was the start of the Munster thing; it was a journey that was beginning. The number of supporters was beginning to swell.”
A year later there was more disappointment at Twickenham. “I was playing for Harlequins and we had reached the Tetley’s Bitter Cup final. A touch judge gave a totally wrong decision and gave a lineout to Newcastle and they scored off it in the corner to win the match. I couldn’t believe it. We hadn’t taken the ball into touch, they had. That was so bitter – excuse the pun.”
At least Wood had the satisfaction of scoring a critical try in the delayed Six Nations match in October that year – the fixture had had to be put back because of a foot-and-mouth outbreak. The victory ensured that Ireland not only beat England but denied them a Grand Slam. Unfortunately that game was played at Lansdowne Road.
But Wood is not one to dwell on negatives. Far from it: he also remembered some rare and precious moments with two legendary actors, Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole at Twickenham.
Harris, a former rugby player from Munster, was particularly fanatical about his province and their fortunes on the rugby field. Unfortunately, his presence was not exactly welcome in the Munster dressing room.
“Richard Harris was at school with my old man. They were in school together for five years. We used to call Harris ‘Jonah’, because every time he came in to see us we’d lose. He brought his own dark cloud with him, and it was terrible because all he ever wanted was for us to win.”
Not even the presence of O’Toole could leaven the outcome of Munster’s matches, although the two actors certainly provided some entertainment for the players.
“Harris would bring O’Toole into the changing room. We never knew how they got in, but there they’d be, in the dressing rooms. They would just be there, part of the furniture. They were a couple of fantastic old rogues. I had a chance, after one match at Twickenham, to sit down and have a chat with Peter O’Toole and it was just fantastic. He told some great stories.”
Wood is another legend with a fund of tales to tell, and deservedly joins a host of greats from the game on the World Rugby Museum’s Wall of Fame.
Article by Dai Llewellyn