While witnessing new rugby heroes lift and warm the hearts of the nation this chilly spring, we couldn’t but think of past ones and how this was their achievement too, writes Kieran Shannon.
As Ireland saw out the match in Twickenham last Saturday with outrageously young backs — Stockdale, Ringrose, Larmour, Carbery, all Grand Slam champions at 23 or younger — the thought occurred to us that a great like Keith Wood never so much as won a Triple Crown.
Having retired at the 2003 World Cup six months earlier, he missed out on the 2004 triumph, the first of four Triple Crowns his country would rack up before that decade was out.
He didn’t win a Heineken Cup either. Or any domestic league with Harlequins. In fact, if you were to reduce a man’s career to what he won at club and country, Wood’s career appears severely underwhelming.
Thankfully though, rugby and the wider public doesn’t view Wood in such terms, the way a hurler or footballer without a Celtic Cross, no matter how great they may be, unfortunately can’t escape such an asterisk.
Beyond the dispensation that being a Lion and the recipient of the inaugural IRB International Player of the Year award (2001), Wood was a winner in green as well, for all the times he lost.
While the Ringrose and Carbery generation has been programmed to compete for and to win Six Nations championships, European titles and, dare we say, World Cups, Wood’s was reared on wooden spoons.
In the early autumn of 1999, when he returned to Munster on a season’s sabbatical, he famously piped up at a team goal-setting session that Munster should aim to win the Heineken Cup.
“People started giggling,” John Kelly would recall. “We couldn’t believe what we’d just heard. It was the first time most of us had even thought about it.”
The following May Munster would make it to the Heineken Cup final. They’d lose, by one solitary cruel point to Northampton, but their support would take over Twickenham as much as Ireland owned the same old ground last Saturday.
The abiding memory of that day isn’t any play or incident — not even Ronan O’Gara’s missed goal kick — but of Wood and his team-mates out on the pitch afterwards, saluting the masses in the stand, who in turn saluted Wood and his team-mates.
“The end of the match was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had — and it was one of the highlights of my career,” Wood would tell Alan English years later in Munster: Our Road To Glory.
“For the simple reason you had 40,000 people there who said: ‘Yeah, you’ve lost, and you didn’t play as well as you could have or should have — but we thank you for it anyway. And we are with you.’”
Last Saturday some of those same supporters were back there again, this time in green, and this time saluting their team in victory.
But would they have been there if Munster weren’t there in 2000?
If Wood hadn’t piped up in that meeting and prompted ambition more than ridicule?
Of course the watershed that was that spring of 2000 saw the birth of another phenomenon: O’Driscoll.
When he called it quits this week four years ago, we thought we’d never see anything like him or his golden generation again.
Yet this past month, there’s Jacob Stockdale at 21, the same age O’Driscoll was scoring those three tries in Paris, breaking 80-year records for most tries in a Six Nations championship.
Last Saturday there was no Rory Best greeting O’Driscoll, the way O’Driscoll memorably greeted Jackie Kyle in Cardiff nine years ago, linking the latest Slam to the last, but his legacy was all over this campaign.
Take the Joe Schmidt factor alone. While Schmidt would thrive and excel in almost any rugby or coaching position in the world — Jose Mourinho for one, had he the humility, would learn and benefit from a chat over a cuppa with Joe, the same way an Anthony Daly would have enjoyed such an audience during his time with the Dublin hurlers — would he have got the break he did with Ireland if he hadn’t won as much with Leinster? Would he have been able to do what he did in Leinster without an O’Driscoll?
It’s worth remembering too how O’Driscoll and Johnny Sexton would have gently coaxed Schmidt to take up the Irish position when it opened up in 2013.
And that Wood was on the committee that headhunted and appointed Schmidt.
And that Schmidt in turn urged O’Driscoll to give Ireland one more season in 2014 so he could help him establish a culture within the set-up that would go on to deliver more than that year’s Six Nations Championship.
Just as 2014 was O’Driscoll’s last season, 2015 would be Paul O’Connell’s. Again, it was marked with a Six Nations Championship, and again it would be a campaign in which many of the foundations for this year’s success were embedded.
Upon his retirement last month, Jamie Heaslip spoke about how his aim had been “to leave the jersey in a better place”.
It was a phrase first popularised by the All Blacks, in James Kerr’s book Legacy, documenting their methods and philosophy, and one now so widespread it has become almost a cliché.
But that’s what Heaslip and his generation did.
They did leave the jersey in a better place, just as a Wood planted trees he would never see — or at least share on the field.
Rather than trump the 2009 Slam, the 2018 Slam has enhanced it.
Now when a group of Irish rugby players assemble in a room and set out their goals, no-one giggles at the suggestion of winning a World Cup.
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