Man who props up the All Blacks brings up 100
MARC HINTON IN WELLINGTON
As Tony Woodcock ponders his imminent rugby milestone, he's dragged into territory he finds a heck of a lot more challenging than facing a gnarly tighthead prop intent on driving him face-first into the turf - that he can handle.
Talking about himself, reflecting on the special group he's about to join tomorrow night in Wellington, that's clearly a little uncomfortable.
Dentists have had easier jobs pulling molars without anaesthetic assistance than the national footy media had yesterday prying self-assessments and inner thoughts out of one of the strong, silent men of our national game.
The 32-year-old Woodcock - the last of a dying breed in All Black rugby - will become just New Zealand's fourth test centurion when he runs out at Westpac Stadium to face the Wallabies, and the first prop to achieve membership of the ton-up club.
The fact that he's also a man of the land - one of only two farming All Blacks left standing - clearly fascinated us a lot more than it did him.
Asked about the significance of his agrarian upbringing in his remarkable longevity in the test arena, he initially brushed the theory off, like he might something unsavoury stuck to the hind quarters of one of his sheep.
But then he gave us a bone.
"When you're growing up, the old man got you out there working and what-not, I guess that has to help," he said of the natural hardness that's a hallmark of his game, and that of fellow farming front-rower, and Highlanders team-mate, Andrew Hore.
"I enjoy going back to the farm [near Kaukapakapa, north of Auckland]. It freshens the mind up and I guess that's quite important at this level too."
Woodcock did manage to recall a "special" day in Cardiff back in 2002 when he made his All Black debut. "You remember it forever," he said. "It goes pretty quick. You've just got to embrace it and get amongst it."
He still has that jersey at home, and says he's kept "quite a lot" of the 99 he's earned hitherto. But that was all he was prepared to share about that.
It was a similar story with the highlights. The World Cup victory was the "obvious one" but there were too many others for him to catalogue. "It's been unreal to play this many, and I guess after the game I will be in a pretty special group," he said, a little, er, sheepishly.
"It's obviously a huge achievement, and a proud moment," he added. "I'm just excited to have the opportunity, for the body to hang in there for this long, and to have the trust of the coaches. [But] it's just a normal test, and I'll prepare the same way I always do."
One journalist tried to pin him down to a theory that his natural fitness from working the land had put him a long way down the track when it came to his rugby.
But Woodcock shrugged that off and made it clear that he undertook the same training programmes as all of his team-mates. No short-cuts for this fellow, even if his physique tells us his strength is more natural than gym-honed.
Woodcock's achievement had even lit up the radar of opposing coach Ewen McKenzie who knows a thing or two about excellence in the front row.
"Every coach wants players who can go out and you can budget on them delivering. He's about to do it for his 100th time, and that's a fantastic thing for a coach to have in his back pocket.
"To be up front you've got to be durable, and he's played most of those 100 tests in a period when scrums were hitting eight on eight. A lot of wear and tear goes with that. In a country where there's hot competition to be an All Black, to play 100 times is a pretty outstanding effort."
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen painted a vivid picture of a man who remains one of the most respected front-rowers in the game and, for now, holds out the challenge of the younger Wyatt Crockett.
"He's a better than average athlete for a front-rower," said Hansen, by way of tribute. "He's got the ability to get around the park and he's probably one of the most mentally tough blokes I've met. Most things don't faze him.
"He's been through quite a bit at times and he's handled that pretty easily. He's always put the team first, he's quiet, and he won't be liking me talking about him now. He's quite a humble bloke and doesn't want a fuss and bother, he just wants to get out there and do the job.
"That epitomises his performance. A lot of the times you don't really see what he's doing, but he does plenty. We're all very proud of him."
As will his nation be tomorrow night. That's a very elite group he now finds himself part of.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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