- Lifestyle & Sports
- 01 Feb 18
Rugby may be a funny old game and unpredictable with it. But as the Six Nations 2018 tournament rolls around, there is real cause for optimism in the Irish camp. We might, says Irish international legend Keith Wood, even justify our status as favourites…
The Six Nations is nearly upon us. For Keith Wood – one of Ireland’s greatest ever rugby players – the championship season might just qualify as the most wonderful time of the year.
“It was always the biggest thing of the year in our house, that’s for sure,” he smiles. “My father played for Ireland and, of course, I got involved when I was about twenty or twenty-one.” Although he has long retired from the game, the Six Nations is still a central part of Wood’s life.
“I got ten or twelve years playing at it, and I’ve covered it for the BBC ever since. So it’s part of my life still – I’ve been part of it as a young fellow, part of it as a player and part of it as a pundit. I like its place in the year. I like its history. I like the positive nationalistic element to it – one country against the other – I love it. There is genuinely something fantastic about this competition.” ANALYSING THE REFEREES
Ireland’s Six Nations 2018 journey kicks off on February 3, against France in Paris. Wood is cautiously optimistic – but warns that Les Bleus could present us with some surprises. It could just be an early banana skin!
“I think we are favourites to win the Six Nations this year,” he says. “That’s because of the manner in which we’ve been playing as a team; but also the manner in which the provinces have been playing.
“I think other teams are suffering quite badly with injuries,” he adds. (Which is great news, she smiled).
“The only obvous fly in the ointment is France,” Keith resumes. “They’ve changed the coach, which means we could see a radically different approach. We just don’t really know what to expect. Because we are very preparation-focused it just throws up an unknown. That could be difficult.”
There’s also the fact that it is an away game.
“In France, they can be irresistible,” Keith says. “But I fancy our chances. I really do. I think we have the measure of them.”
A lot of preparation goes into analysing the opposing sides.
“You put a huge amount of attention into individual players and how they’ll play,” Keith confirms. “You put a huge amount of attention, and preparation, into how the referee will ref it – because there are certain styles to refereeing as well. It becomes more important later on in the championship, when you see how teams are playing.
“For what is a fairly simple game, it’s become incredibly complex due to professionalism,” he adds. “There are various approaches now, whereas before there might have been only two or three. So a huge amount goes in before a competition even starts.”
STRENGTH IN DEPTH The increasing level of professionalism has changed the game in all sorts of ways, but Wood believes the benefits are there for all to see.
“It’s a very young professional sport,” he reflects, “and it’s still trying to find its place, where it is, and what it could be. There are changes in the laws every couple of years that take cognisance of that fact – that it is ever-changing. It is trying to become safer and more viewer-friendly in many ways. It’s difficult sometimes to get the balance. Not everything is great in professionalism, but an awful lot of it is good.
“I spent yesterday watching the European Cup matches, which I don’t normally do. People would presume that being me, I would watch every rugby game, all the time – but I don’t. Yesterday was a very unusual day for me, sitting at the fire, looking at the matches. It was fascinating – the spirit in which they were played was fantastic. There’s always ups and downs, but overall I think professionalism has been very good for the sport.”
Wood believes that current Irish squad has a huge number of strengths. “For a start, Joe Schmidt is incredibly thorough, focused and well-organised. We also have strength in depth, particularly coming through Leinster at the moment. We have a great blend of old and new; strong leaders; really good young guys. I wouldn’t be as worried now as in the past, if we have a couple of injuries – with the exception maybe of Johnny Sexton. This year is probably the most comfortable I feel going in – which maybe is frightening. You don’t want to be too comfortable!”
If he were a betting man, what would Keith do with his cash on this occasion?
“Put money on Ireland! I think we’re favourites. But the reality is that we need to go out and prove that in every game we play. That’s sport. In the end, there is no hiding place.”