Crocs, snakes and bonding: Inside the Wallabies' camp and why Eddie took them back to where it all began
It’s no surprise that Eddie Jones returned to Arnhem Land late last week. After all, 20 years ago, he took his Wallabies side up…
Of all the positions in rugby, hooker is the least desirable on the field. It takes a unique character to want to scrummage with both arms held captive by two props either side of you.
If the scrum buckles it is not an envious position to be in, locked in place. No wonder the position of hooker attracts some tough characters who are not usually the shy, retiring types. Think of Sean Fitzpatrick, Dane Coles for New Zealand and Phil Kearns for Australia and you get the idea!
Whereas scrummaging ability used to be the key criteria for selecting a hooker, the dual skills of lineout throwing and mobility evolved to be at the forefront of vital skills. My earliest memory of the mobile hooker was All Black Hika Reid, who was at the end of a sweeping All Black movement in a memorable try against Australia in 1980.
Captaincy lends itself to the hooker role as well, with Keith Wood, John Smit and Fitzpatrick notable examples.
We are down to hooker as the last position for the Favourites team selected from players outside New Zealand and Australia, he will pack down between Fran Cotton and Ian “Mighty Mouse” McLauchlan. Leading candidates were Wood, Brian Moore, Smit, Bismarck du Plessis, John Pullin, Bobby Windsor, Uli Schmidt and Malcolm Marx, four of those from South Africa. As an aside, no, Brian Moore was not known for reading Shakespeare to his teammates before a game!
After much research and deliberation, Keith Wood can be unveiled as our favourites hooker, as he typifies the unique skills and characteristics of the complete hooker. When a player stands out in your memory you know he has triggered it by his accomplishments and legacy.
Keith Gerard Mallinson Wood was born 1972 in Killaloe, Ireland and was educated at St Munchins College. Hurling was initially a favoured sport, possibly as a way of distinguishing himself from his father Gordon, who played rugby for Ireland on twenty-nine occasions. Is it genetics or environment that leads a son to follow in his father’s footsteps?
My father was a halfback and after I initially seemed suited to a loose forward role, soon transformed into a halfback when my physique was appropriate. My father’s middle name is “Rugby” so my future was already defined. Is it a genuine love of the sport or doing something that you know Dad will be proud of, that leads us to our chosen sport?
Anyway, back to Keith, he soon became known as the “Raging Potato” or “Uncle Fester” after stints at the Garryowen club, Harlequins and Munster.
They say grass does not grow on a busy street and that applies to Mr Wood, who was an intelligent, balding man. Keith went on to play fifty-eight times for Ireland, leading them on thirty-six occasions. He acquired a reputation as a motivated, impassioned player who played in three Rugby World Cups and toured twice with the British and Irish Lions to South Africa and Australia.
“He went on the Lions tour to Australia in 2001 with a chest injury that would have sidelined lesser men,” Evening Standard 2001. To Keith Wood, winning is the highlight of any tour and this was achieved in South Africa in 1997 when he toured as one of Martin Johnson’s deputies.
Rugby hookers do not have the classical running style of wingers, they prefer the crouched approach, but if you view footage of Keith Wood, it is hard to differentiate between him and a running back. He had surprising speed, a sidestep and fend and knew his way to the try-line, amply shown when he scored four tries against the USA in a World Cup match. How many hookers score four tries! Not many, as backs Jonah Lonu, Bryan Habana, Chester Williams, Marc Ellis and Chris Latham also hold the record.
A stand-out in open play, Wood was also accomplished at the more mundane tasks of a hooker including lineout throws and scrummaging and include an extraordinary punting ability. This adds up to be the complete dynamo hooker who was a charismatic leader. And I thought Sean Fitzpatrick was good!
Keith Wood retired after the 2003 Rugby World Cup and was inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 2005. “While he played his final game in the green shirt in a losing quarter-final against France in 2003. “The heart is willing, the head is willing but the body has had enough,” he said in Rugbyworld.com
Wood believes the style of professional rugby today is too brutal for amateur players, “Rugby was set up to be played – not just to be professional. While I am big a fan of the professional game we need to look after the grassroots. There is quite a vast change between professional and amateur rugby and I do not necessarily believe you should have the same laws for professional and amateur rugby.”
He appears to have had a comfortable transition from playing rugby to an after career, with public speaking, punditry, journalism and business ownership keeping him busy. Wood compares sport and business as being mutual with the role of leadership comparable, “It took a period before I got my head around leadership, that I really needed to rely on the other leaders to do the job. There is no point in giving them a job and then trying to do their job for them.”
Keith Wood is a memorable character and rugby player who was the quintessential energetic hooker, with the added strength of leadership. He is a notable addition to the Favourites team.