Ireland and England enter coronavirus-enforced limbo in a strong position to lift the Six Nations title, but history shows that peril awaits when the Championship is subject to a lengthy interruption.
Keith Wood was Ireland captain in 2001 when his team’s final three games had to be postponed due to the outbreak of foot and mouth, a livestock disease.
In echoes of that year, the current Six Nations has been temporarily abandoned due to the spread of Covid-19 with rescheduled fixtures likely to be played in late October.
England will eventually travel to Italy determined to avoid the fate of their predecessors from 19 years ago who arrived in Dublin on the brink of a Grand Slam only to be ambushed 20-14.
On that day they were caught cold by an Ireland team battle-hardened by games against Scotland and Wales and armed with a point to prove.
“I’d heard some of the English guys say they’d definitely would have beaten us in the spring, but we were in great form then as well and I actually believe that we lost the Grand Slam because of the delay,” said Wood.
“We felt we had a good team and felt that if we’d played them in the spring, we’d have won then too.
“Our first game back in September was against Scotland and we were totally undercooked. It was awful for us. Our gameplan was wrong and they absolutely beat the s**t out of us.
“But against England we played bloody well. It had been seven years since we’d beaten England and I was sat on the bench on that day in 1994, so it was a big day.”
Wood rampaged over the whitewash from an immaculate line-out drill to score Ireland’s only try and – earlier in the game – there had been another breakthrough at the set-piece.
“After 20 minutes Malcolm O’Kelly came up to me and goes ‘Woody, I’ve worked out their line-out calls’,” said Wood, who picks Peter Stringer’s try-saving tackle on Dan Luger as the game’s pivotal moment.
“I knew the calls were familiar and Malcolm said they were the same calls we used on the Lions! So we mopped up a lot of their line-out ball.”
The RFU has released an update for all rugby clubs regarding Coronavirus.— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) March 13, 2020
While Wood would prefer to see this year’s postponed games replayed at some point, the Lions great cautions administrators against cramming them into an already-packed schedule if there is no obvious weekend.
“My issue with rugby is the constant number of games. The game is hard enough and there is too much on a small group of players,” he said.
“There are too many matches and out of this we will find out there may only be two or three weekends in a season when matches can be played, showing how taut the whole schedule is.
“The guys have to look at this period of huge disruption and take a week off, relax a little, eat some rubbish food, drink some beers.
“Chill out and take it as bit of a break because there are no breaks in the game any more.”
Wood, who won 58 caps for Ireland and five for the Lions, believes the Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on the value of games such as rugby.
“I’ve often said that the great thing about sport is that it doesn’t mean anything, but never have I been more wrong because there is a big absence in people’s lives at the moment,” Wood said.
“Sport’s always been a great way for people to relax and that is more important now because there’s a crisis going on.
“People are going sick and it’s terrible – and there’s nothing to take you mind away from it. And that’s what sport does, so maybe sport is important.”