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Keith Wood: Why Ulster’s glass is only half full

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Rugby legend Keith Wood (left) with Billy Graham of Belfast, one of the stars of the new Bushmills ads

Rugby legend Keith Wood (left) with Billy Graham of Belfast, one of the stars of the new Bushmills ads

Rugby legend Keith Wood (left) with Billy Graham of Belfast, one of the stars of the new Bushmills ads

Sitting in the Duke of York pub in Belfast at lunch-time, sampling various Bushmills whiskeys in the company of Master Distiller Calum Egan and Irish rugby legend Keith Wood serves to remind one that there are worse ways of earning a living.

Wood, who is something of a red wine connoisseur, enjoys the grain as well as the grape. Always sipped slowly and in moderation, of course.

Following a career that earned him cheers wherever he played, currently Wood is helping the world-famous north Antrim distillers with their new Bushmills Brothers advertising campaign.

Over a glass, the much slimmed down former hooker, who has shed well over two stones, urges patience in building for the future, warns against the temptation to go for a quick fix and stresses the need for competitive matches further down the ladder.

His advice to Ulster is “small steps”.

“I think seven or eight years back Ulster suffered from having too many foreign players. There was a clutch of guys brought in and they all left in one year which left a void afterwards,” he recalls. “You don’t turn that around overnight. It takes time.

“It didn’t happen overnight for Munster or Leinster. If you look at them, they have taken 10 years, 12 years, to build what they have now and it was done around a core of players which meant there was continuity.

“They have become used to a consistent level of success.

“You can’t say that about Ulster. You can’t say there has been a core at the heart of that team over that same period of time because there hasn’t. So they have to build that up, which is what they’re trying to do now.

“It’s getting senior players to take a proper leadership role and getting a level of consistency over a decent period of time.

“I think Ulster will be better next year and better still the year after that. But they have to build it step by step.”

Clarifying his thinking on imported players he continues: “I genuinely don’t have an objection, but I think that if you bring them in then part of their job has to be that they help prepare a local guy so he’s ready to step up when they leave.

“You have to prepare replacements. That’s what you need to be getting out of your foreign players.

“Two or three of the right guys coming in can be vital. But it’s not just about them playing; it’s about them helping to prepare others for when they’re no longer there.

“That’s what’s needed and if that’s what is happening there’s nothing wrong with that.

“We have to get as many young guys through the system as we can.

“You need to get to a point where you have genuine strength in depth. Ulster got into the semi-final of the British and Irish Cup, which was good, though Munster beat them comprehensively at the weekend.

“Those teams are probably the most important of the lot, so those guys need to be playing a lot more matches. They need regular competition.

“The problem with trying to bring these young guys through is that having got them and conditioned them there are no games for them.

“They need to be playing competitive, meaningful games every week at that level. There needs to be additional money to go into that.

“These aren’t our international players so that isn’t going to tire them out,” he hastens to add. “We need to look after our young players, but not to wrap them in cotton wool.”

Recalling his own development in the days before elite squads, academies or any such concepts he says: “I often played twice at a weekend when I was young, though I know those were amateur days so it’s not the same.

“But that’s how you learn. There used to be a system where you could play Senior Cup and Junior Cup in the same year provided it was your first year as a senior. So I played open side for the Under 20s and hooker for the juniors and seniors.

“I remember playing three matches against Thomond, who were always tough. The third match was the Junior final, which they won.

“They had a tight head, Robert Duggan, a really grizzly guy with a moustache, who I’d say was 42 or 43.

“I was 18 or 19 and he killed me in the first match and in the second.

“I’d love to say I killed him in the third, but I didn’t. But I survived as a result of having learnt through playing in the previous two because I’d learnt how to deal with this guy, though it was a horrible experience scrummaging against him.

“If I’d played only one of those three matches, I wouldn’t have learnt what I did and my only memory would be of having been screwed into the ground by that guy.

“For all the coaching that anyone can give a young player I’d say nothing beats the experience of playing against a crafty old geezer who’s showing you the ropes.

“Technically, they need to play,” he explained.

“You’ll learn more from playing than from just being coached.

“So you have to get these young players into a competition and we don’t have that at the moment. That has to change.

“If you look at Munster, we’ve had Ronan O’Gara at out-half for 10 years with no-one coming through to challenge him in all that time.

“Now Ronan’s the consummate professional, so probably he would have fought them all off anyway.

“But 10 years? That’s far too long without a challenger.

“There should be one coming through every five years at least, which is where the emerging players need regular competition.”

He added: “Thankfully the B&I Cup has offered some for these guys this year, but we need more.”

Belfast Telegraph