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Dublin: 8 °C Thursday 20 February, 2020
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'There are definitely lads good enough to be playing at Pro12 level'

Clontarf head coach Andy Wood is one of the unsung heroes of Irish rugby.

ANDY WOOD IS one of the unsung heroes of Irish rugby.

There are many more like him in the game; men and women who work outside the limelight of professional rugby but play vital roles in the development of young players and adults alike.

Andy Wood speaks to his players before the game Wood is the Clontarf head coach. Source: Tom Beary/INPHO

A native of Wellington in New Zealand, Wood first arrived on these shores in the early 2000s for a whistle-stop visit and ended up staying for good.

Now in his second stint as Clontarf FC head coach, Wood has guided the Dublin club back into tomorrow’s Ulster Bank League Division 1A final at the Aviva Stadium [KO 2.30pm], where they are attempting to secure their third title in four years.

Cork Con are the opposition for the second consecutive year and the hope is that this season’s decider will match the excitement of what we saw last time, when Tarf edged it on a 28-25 scoreline.

“I know they’ll bring a few surprises and hopefully we can bring a few variations as well,” says Wood. “The game last year was exciting and we’re hoping for the same again this year.”

A product of Wellington College, Wood’s post-school playing career began with his local club, Western Suburbs.

He decided to take time out to travel the world and with his brother, Bruce, living in Ireland and playing for the Kiwi-influenced De La Salle Palmerstown, this was an obvious spot on his list of places to visit.

Wood was only supposed to be in Ireland for a short stay, but “ended up playing a game on the Sunday for DLSP.” Warmly welcomed by the club and smitten by the country, he decided to settle here and soon met his now-wife.

Playing alongside his brother was fun and Wood also enjoyed the coaching of his fellow Kiwi, Phil Werahiko, another of those crucial figures who operates well behind the scenes in Irish rugby.

Andy Wood celebrates Clontarf's win Wood celebrates a Leinster Senior Cup success over St. Mary's in 2006. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

When Werahiko moved to Clontarf, the Wood brothers went with him. A teak-tough lock or back row, Andy played for the club in 2003 and 2006 AIL finals, both of which saw Tarf suffer defeat.

While the club couldn’t get over the winning line, Werahiko’s approach had a huge influence on Wood as a player and influenced his decision to move into coaching.

“The passion he has for the game, his understanding, his knowledge,” says Wood. “The one thing I found with Phil was that he had a real empathy for you as a player. Depending on what level you’re playing at, you can sometimes find yourself discouraged and you let that get on top of you.

“But in every player, Phil sees an opportunity for development and an opportunity for improvement.

“That really opened my eyes in terms of how I developed as a player, how my enjoyment was fostered further at a time I could have been looking at other interests in life.”

Wood took over from Werahiko as Clontarf coach in 2007 for his first two-year stint in charge, helping them into the AIL final in his second season in charge but suffering an agonising defeat to Shannon – the Limerick side were crowned champions for scoring the game’s first try, following a 19-19 draw after extra time.

Werahiko remains an influence on Wood to this day, with the pair of them working at Belvedere College. Wood has a games master and coach in the school since 2005, while Werahiko is the director of rugby and senior team head coach.

Belvedere have secured back-to-back Leinster Schools Senior Cup titles in the last two years and have continually produced excellent players thanks to Wood, Werahiko and many others working hard on the training fields.

Phil Werahiko manager of DLSP 11/3/2000 Phil Werahiko in his DLSP days. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Modestly, Wood says it has been a pleasure to work with talented players in Belvo, and points to the influence of Werahiko as key.

“In terms of going into coaching, I enjoyed it so much and got so much out of it, that that pathway appeared real to me.

“Phil is working here in Belvedere and you can see those little glimmers in the players. It’s great for Irish rugby – through the grassroots and into the club game he’s had a huge impact. A top man.”

Wood head coached Naas and Blackrock RFC between 2009 and 2011, but the lure of Clontarf was too strong to resist and he resumed his role at Castle Avenue for the 2011/12 season.

Again, they suffered defeat in the AIL final at the end of that campaign – this time to St. Mary’s – but Wood and the club only grew more determined as their apparent curse in finals continued.

They finally broke their duck in 2014, seeing off Old Belvedere, and have been in every final since, wining their second title last season against Cork Con.

Given his range of experiences as a player and coach, Wood is better placed than most to judge the quality of club rugby in Ireland and he remains excited by what he sees every weekend.

“With the World Cup in 2015, for example, we had a number of players from the club game who crossed over on short-term contracts and some of them extended out,” says Wood, “guys like Ian Hirst, Royce Burke-Flynn, Tony Ryan.

“There are definitely lads good enough to be playing at Pro12 level, without a doubt. The top end of the club game in 1A, there’s a lot of ambitious clubs out there who are doing their best for their clubs and the players. We’re lucky at Clontarf to have the structures to do that.

Tony Ryan Tony Ryan was with Leinster in 2015. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

“There are always areas that can be improved, but with the players coming out of the Leinster Schools Cup, there is a huge number of quality players coming through.”

Given his job in Belvedere College, Wood’s finger is very much on the pulse in terms of the emerging talent from the schools game.

But he is also aware of the growing force that is youths rugby in Ireland. He has coached Leinster at U18 level and is the current head coach of the Leinster U19s, where schools and club players combine for the first time.

“I’ve seen the club players coming and I’ve seen the work the Leinster Branch are doing to give those guys who aren’t part of the Schools system a chance. That gap is significantly closing and we’re seeing more guys come from clubs into the Leinster age-grade teams at 18s and 19s level.

“There’s a huge amount of work going into it. The likes of Sean O’Brien and Tadhg Furlong, there’s going to be any number of players coming out of that pathway now, as well as the schools. I’d be positive in terms of how that pathway has been set up.”

This weekend, it’s all about Clontarf, however. Wood will hope he has ideally prepared his side for what will be a hungry challenge from Cork Con, but he has had good support around him.

Clontarf assistant coach Simon Broughton provides another Kiwi link in this tale, having first played with Wood at DLSP and then head coach the club after Wood had left.

The pair of them have linked up to major success in Clontarf and have also teamed up to coach the Leinster U19s.

Clontarf players celebrate winning Clontarf are looking for back-to-back titles tomorrow. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

“Simon is an excellent skills and attack coach, so I asked him to come and it seemed like a good fit,” says Wood. “He’s now working with Leinster in an Elite Player Development Officer role.

“We work pretty well together and understand when to push the right button to get more out of each other.”

Wood and Broughton, like so many others in Ireland continue to work hard developing young players and senior club members every season, and with little applause.

Not that these grassroots, club and schools coaches are in the game for the thanks. For them, seeing players learn and progress is the ultimate reward.

Joey Carbery, a product of the club game with Athy RFC, had just a single season with Clontarf and starred in last season’s UBL final at the Aviva, but loved every minute of the campaign.

For Wood, seeing Carbery move on to higher honours has been a pleasure. And even then he’s taking no credit.

“He’s one of those guys who you give a framework and see how they develop,” says Wood.

“You have to trust good players and the best players to put their own mark on things and give them that freedom to work with good players around them. Joey was a fantastic example of that.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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