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Last Updated: Monday, 10 November, 2003, 16:02 GMT
Wood assured of greatness
Keith Wood in action for the Lions against Australia in 2001
Keith Wood starred for the Lions in 1997 and 2001

Keith Wood ought to have bowed out from rugby in front of a capacity crowd at Dublin's Lansdowne Road following a famous Irish victory.

Instead the 31-year-old hooker's last appearance saw him captain Ireland during a crushing World Cup quarter-final defeat by France in Melbourne on Sunday.

But if the setting and France's 43-21 victory were no fairytale ending, Wood knew that he was getting out when he had planned, his longstanding shoulder problem none the worse.

And the timing of his departure meant he spared himself the bitterness that affects so many sportsmen who do not quit while they are still on top.

The shaven-headed Wood was one of the most instantly recognisable figures in world rugby.

His appearance alone would have ensured minor celebrity status, but what set Wood apart was the way the great in any sport are able to extend the boundaries of what was previously thought possible.

The unthinkable notion of a ball-handling hooker was turned into rugby reality by Wood.

He rewrote the textbooks by showing speed worthy of a wing let alone a 17 stone front-row and kicking the ball expertly out of hand.

Keith Wood kept battling right to the end in Sunday's game against France
Keith Wood always gave his all in his beloved Ireland jersey

And the "identikit professional", as coach Eddie O'Sullivan described him, played a key role in transforming Ireland from plucky battlers into a respected team, his standards lifting those of the players around him.

Wood's 58-cap career, which began in 1994, would be remarkable for his physical stamina alone.

He has endured several shoulder operations on neck injuries, that other curse of anyone who spends time at the coalface of a scrum.

What is less well-known is how Wood has often played despite carrying a variety of serious injuries, his resilience at its utmost during the six months from June-December 1997.

He went on the first of his two British Lions' tours that summer, to South Africa, not long after a shoulder operation.

During the victorious first Test in Cape Town, he tore ankle ligaments.

Strapped up he played a week later in Durban in the series-clincher.

Upon his return, his back went but he continued to play for London club Harlequins, where he was captain following a move from his native Munster.

Then came two bruising Tests against France and the All Blacks.

In the game against New Zealand, Wood scored two of his 15 tries before the break in what ended as a 63-15 thrashing, outsprinting All Black wing Jeff Wilson for the second.

Now I have to start working
Keith Wood

Wood then collapsed at the sound of the half-time whistle and was carried off the field into the Lansdowne Road dressing room.

But there were plenty of happier days.

Wood's try running round from the back of a line-out was key in Ireland's 20-14 win which denied England the Six Nations Grand Slam in 2001.

More than most sportsmen, Wood will be well-placed to put the highs and lows of sport into their proper context.

The son of Ireland and Lions prop Gordon, Wood lost his father when he was 10.

And last year his son Alexander was born just two days after his brother, also Gordon, died from a heart-attack and just months ahead of the loss of his mother, Pauline.

His career over, Wood now says that he will "have to start working".

In his case, more accurately it will be a case of continuing to work because no Irish player has ever battled harder than Keith Wood.

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