Heineken Cup: Ulster have balance right, says Keith Wood
Keith Wood has given Ulster the thumbs up for the progress they have made and the direction in which they are heading.
His endorsement in the countdown to tomorrow’s Heineken Cup quarter-final clash with Northampton Saints could not be more timely. Or appreciated, given that it comes from a man who has been critical of Ulster’s approach at times in the past.
For example, Wood never made any secret of his disdain of former Ulster coach Alan Solomons’ dependence on hired hands. The former Irish hooker and captain went public more than once in criticising what he saw as being short-term thinking which ultimately proved detrimental.
But nowadays he reckons Ulster are a lot closer to getting the balance right. With results in the Magners League and Heineken Cup vastly improved, Wood believes the number and quality of players they are bringing through augurs well for the future.
It’s a very positive synopsis by the bald hooker who made his name with Munster and Harlequins at club level as well as setting a world record for the number of Test tries scored by a number two during a phenomenal international career for Ireland and in the red of the Lions.
“Over the years I had some big issues with Ulster, notably with Solomons for having too many foreigners,” Wood recalled.
“I know there’s a good few in at the moment, too, but maybe that is a step which is needed.
“In the past, when all those guys left — about six or seven years ago — they left a hole. That was not a good place for Ulster and Irish rugby needs a good Ulster side performing really well. Thankfully that is what we are now seeing.”
He offered further encouragement by adding: “I would have to say that in the European Cup this year some of wins have been fantastic. The character Ulster have shown this season has been brilliant with a lot of games won in the last five or 10 minutes. I don’t think we would necessarily have seen that from them in the past.
“But now I think you’re seeing guys coming up through the Ulster system and I think you’re now seeing guys taking on proper leadership roles within the province. That’s reflected in the manner in which they play.
“There’s now a chunk of young guys coming in who have got an older crew they can lean on because you’ve got good leaders like Muller and Pienaar delivering as well.
“Six or seven years ago there was no such crew for young guys to lean on and that’s a pretty scary place for a fella of 20 or 21 years of age to find himself.
“Now you have actually a basis, a level of succession or continuation that’s needed to build as a team.”
Wood is a big advocate of indigenous coaching staff and here, too, he believes Ulster have the right people in the right places.
“You have a home-grown coach now in Brian McLaughlin and I’m a believer in that because each province has its own particular oddities and peculiarities which require a very big local input,” he said.
“That doesn’t necessarily have to be the head coach because you may need to get experience from outside for that role, but you do need somebody who understands what’s going on inside the heads of some of these guys because they all have their own idiosyncrasies.”
His admission that he had not been convinced that Ulster would reach the knock-out stage is wholly understandable; after all, 11 successive failures is something of a pattern.
“I didn’t know that Ulster would get out of their group and to tell you the truth I wasn’t too worried if they did or didn’t because I just thought that there were enough signs of a big improvement to prove that they were coming back.
“I admit I thought it might have been a step too far for them this season but I’m delighted to say that I have been comfortably proven wrong.
“It’s great for Ulster and Ulster’s progress is great for Ireland because we need our provinces to do well.
“Irish rugby is in pretty fine fettle and has been for some time. Our expectation level is high — unbelievably high — and it should be because we have decent players, guys who are playing pretty well and growing into their roles.”
Asked to name the likely winners of the 2011 Heineken Cup Wood replied: “I virtually never go for predictions and it isn’t about sitting on the fence. Making a call is almost impossible because so much of it comes down to how teams react after the Six Nations.
“I watched Leinster in their final three games of the group stage and they were incredibly impressive. If you’d asked me then I would have said that Leinster were top of the tree at that stage.
“But now? Don’t know and won’t know until after the weekend. Ask me then.”