Saturday 20 October 2001. The "Old Enemy" England are in town for the "foot and mouth" delayed finale to the Six Nations Championship. They are here, chariots and all, to collect the Championship Trophy as well as the season's ultimate prize, the Grand Slam. But waiting in the long grass are a proud team led, as described in the match programme, by "Keith Gerard Mallinson Wood, educated at St. Munchin's College and the University of Limerick......" and have they a surprise in store for our esteemed visitors.
Yes, it is correct to say that Keith had spent some years learning and developing at UL - indeed it may be called his University of Life, incorporating the School of Hard Knocks, as his battered body can testify. Many hours of preparation, dedicated study and extra practical modules formed the foundation of a truly wonderful career in professional rugby. Keith's laboratory sessions took place on the track and the training fields, tutorials were held in the weight room and sports halls with mind-blowing lectures taking place in the inner sanctum of team sport, the dressingroom.
So what makes a great player? The terms technical, tactical and mentally strong are constantly cited but we must first look to our parents and the gifts they give us. Often, we do not appreciate the impact of heredity. Following in one's father's or mother's footsteps can be the prime component in determining elite performance. Keith's father, Gordon, proudly wore the green shirt of Ireland 29 times and was also honoured with the British and Irish Lions' tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1959 as a top class prop forward.
Genetic inheritance is only a start; hard work, dedication and good advice from an early age are also required. Long before the advent of elite Development Academies sponsored by the IRFU, the schools and clubs played their part in developing young talent into the finished product - the player who can represent our country. Keith was fortunate to have two of the best Development Academies in this country, namely St. Munchin's College and Garryowen FC. Their list of internationals is most impressive and they represented the perfect start for a young impressionable player, providing the basic ingredients of advanced coaching and top class advice.
With this foundation set, extra ingredients such as bravery, temperament, power and above all the willingness to take on the challenge literally head first emerged. Taking responsibility for the ball, ensuring its retention while gaining the hard-won yards for the team is one of the most challenging facets of modern rugby. Few volunteer, even fewer succeed, but Keith has given the art of ball carrying his own stamp and in time this may even be referred to as "A Woody", adding another term to the rugby lexicon.
The words of the Garryowen song "with the forwards doing their duty and the backs will follow up" neatly summed up the club game of the century in Thomond Park against Shannon, which decided the 1992 League title in front of the biggest crowd ever to attend a regular League game. It was a wonderful occasion, as Garryowen led by ball carrier Keith Wood, and captain Philip Danagher, brought the League title to Limerick for the first time, and started a trend that continues to this day.
Keith Wood was a constant presence in the Irish rugby squad since that time, and only a series of unfortunate injuries prevented a century of caps. His first taste of international duty was to "warm the bench" against Australia in 1992. He had to forego the rest of that season because of a serious shoulder injury that plagued his career. His long overdue international debut came against the same opposition two years later and since then his wholehearted performances endeared him to Irish fans worldwide.
For Keith every game, every cap has been a highlight, but he is probably best remembered internationally for his two brilliant performances for the British and Irish Lions as they were victorious in a memorable test series against South Africa in 1997. Keith's leadership qualities coupled with his skill and ability brought pride to Northern Hemisphere rugby, an achievement shared with his four Irish teammates.
While on sabbatical from Harlequins in the season 1999/2000, Keith's influence and his sense of responsibility led Munster to a European Cup Final showdown with Northampton in Twickenham. Under the posts in Thomond Park heading into injury time against Saracens Keith took responsibility for failing to make the tackle that could have prevented a potential match-losing try. Rather than being disappointed and downhearted it was a case of getting up to the other end of the pitch and making amends. Not only did Munster - aided and abetted by The Claw and Gaillimh get up to the other end but Keith himself burrowed over to "wipe the slate clean" and allowed Ronan O'Gara a kick to win the day. That game is still talked about as one of the all time great occasions in the Rugby citadel of Thomond Park.
Let us return to the match with England in October 2001. The try sequence of Wood throwing to Galwey, who offloaded down to Foley who popped the ball to Wood at full flight (and nobody could or would stop him) spelt the end of England's "Grand Slam" aspirations in that season. Like the folk memory of the attendance figures in Thomond Park on that other memorable occasion in October 1978, the distance Keith covered to score that vital try increases by the day. The line out was 10m, no it was on the 22, maybe the 10m line....
It stands as a famous victory over the potential World Champions, depriving them of a Triple Crown and Grand Slam. It was acknowledged that they were beaten fair and square by a set piece conceived on the training pitch in Thomond Park.
That victory over England in 2001 was priceless but was not the only highlight of a great year. Harlequins won the European Shield and Keith became the inaugural winner of the International Rugby Board World Player of the Year - a wonderful achievement for a man from Killaloe who played both Gaelic Games and Soccer for his native county in his earlier years.
In a gripping book on Rugby entitled "Water Colours" Donald McRae through the eyes of Gregor
Townsend gives us an insight into the toll rugby has taken on Keith Wood's body:
"Gregor Townsend has already told me that, in the dressing room, the Lions
had all seen how Wood's body was a battlefield of scars............ He had
taken some brutal batterings, both in Club and Test rugby. After every game,
he limped and ached - but kept talking".
The achievements of Keith and his acceptance of the pain in pursuit of higher glory continued. In 2002 he again put his "neck on the line" in Siberia to ensure Ireland's World Cup qualification in Australia. Ireland did qualify but Keith was out of rugby for the next year with an injury that resulted in an uphill struggle to be fit for that World Cup in October 2003. The objective was achieved but again at a personal cost, typifying the legend we call Woody. Training with a team can be difficult but training for over a year on your own required exceptional dedication. Such was the sacrifice Keith Wood had to make, and with the training location transferred to the University of Limerick Arena, many hours were spent on the bike with only a DVD player for company. Once again, with his objective achieved, Keith Wood had the honour of leading Ireland into the 2003 World Cup Finals - his third Finals and with it the joy of placing Ireland back at the top table of International Rugby. As the final whistle sounded against France Keith bade a tearful farewell to a glittering rugby career that will never again be replicated.
A record 58 Caps as hooker, a record 36 of them as Captain, overtaking Tom Kiernan's 24 tests as Captain in 2001 and the achievements while playing rugby for St Munchin's College, Garryowen, Harlequins, Munster, Ireland and the British and Irish Lions - all are testament to an outstanding sporting career.
Keith Wood works with and raises funds for many charities, although he has always been slow to advertise this fact.
The picture of Keith Wood in the UL World of Sport - with that distinctive "clean" look depicts a role model extraordinaire, a face synonymous with all that is good in the game of rugby. We honour today Limerick's, Munster's and Ireland's rugby Commander-in- Chief Keith Gerard Mallinson Wood. He stood up when it counted, took the hits and came back for more. From players, administrators and fans alike a big "Thank You, Keith".
It is a goal of the University of Limerick to work beyond the walls of its campus. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to offer our facilities to those who are pursuing knowledge, truth and understanding.