Friday 21 July 2017

Ruddock set for Stander showdown as Irish eyes keep watch

'When I've had my chance I've done well,' says Leinster backrow Rhys Ruddock (SPORTSFILE)
'When I've had my chance I've done well,' says Leinster backrow Rhys Ruddock (SPORTSFILE)
David Kelly

David Kelly

Hammer the hammer. Kill the king. While rugby increasingly accommodates folk who sometimes appear as if they are speaking a different language, the sport remains endearingly simple in its nature.

One ball, two scoring ends; catch the ball and then pass or kick. Or, perhaps, in the spirit in which the game was invented, run. In the old days, that would involve running around people.

When Rhys Ruddock and CJ Stander clash this weekend in the Aviva - perhaps from the blindside, or occasionally at the base of the scrum, depending on selection - it will be full-on and confrontational.

For players such as these, the best way to evade stumbling blocks is simply to crash, bang and wallop through them - Munster's visit to Leinster heartland promises to be a demolition derby.

From international colleagues to tribal rivals in a matter of weeks, if anything their recent bonding will heighten the sense of sporting antagonism as they at once jostle for local pride and national recognition.

"Having been with him in Ireland over the past couple of weeks and seeing his performances...he's a quality back-row," relates Ruddock, 25.

"Often we'd be fighting for a spot in the back-row. It would be a good challenge to play against him. He's a quality player."

They have only shared 11 minutes on the field, the final fretful moments of Ireland's mostly limp championship defence but it was the naturalised South African who emerged as one of the stars in green.

Carrying more than anyone else in every game bar the England defeat - when he was superseded by the crowned "King" Billy Vunipola - Stander lived up to his reputation as a destructive force.

All the while Ruddock was trying to repair his own; three serious arm injuries in 12 months had severely hampered the progress of one earmarked for greatness earlier this decade.

"He has a real focus on getting his hands on the ball," comments Ruddock. "I think he really backs himself to get the ball and you can tell he's getting into position to carry nine times out of ten.


"Credit to him, he works hard and gets himself on the ball, shows up a lot around the back. That's what we are all trying to do as back-rows and he's good at it. Credit to him for that. Hopefully I can do the same."

Having missed the World Cup, Ruddock was recruited when Peter O'Mahony was felled but was not alone in underwhelming in the infamous quarter-final; he then returned to the bench for the Six Nations opener as Tommy O'Donnell was preferred.

That in itself will be another testy sideshow this weekend; O'Donnell's head injury prompted Ruddock to face the land of his father, albeit for the half-hour that coincided with a stunning Welsh resurgence.

Sean O'Brien's return and O'Donnell's revival evicted him from the 23 altogether the following week in France but, before accompanying Stander against the Scots, he had replaced the Munster captain against England and Italy.

"Obviously, there was the initial disappointment of not making the squad," explains Ruddock, for whom 10 caps in six years indicates how injury and over-populated back-row stocks have hindered his international progress.

"So then it was just about staying ready and putting myself in a position to get as much playing time as I could back at Leinster.

"Getting called back in when I did was great and, thankfully, I got some game time and some opportunity. It was nice to get back in there."

It will be tougher staying there; the positively insane international calendar that sees Ireland embark upon a three-test tour to South Africa will see the respective returns of Iain Henderson, O'Mahony and O'Brien bolster the back-row ranks.

And the clamour for Jack O'Donoghue - yet another red rival this weekend - to travel may also potentially stymie his path.

"When I've had my chance I've done well but I also missed the season last year with an injury so I've got no qualms about it," he admits sanguinely.

"I'm delighted to get the opportunities I've had this year. Obviously I would like more involvement but it's probably the most I've had in any one season so I'm going in the right direction.

"Performances on occasions like this on the weekend obviously are a big part to the involvement you're going to get.

"Games like this probably influence Joe's thinking. But to be honest, I think making a point about these battles individually, obviously they're big, but at the end of the day it's Leinster v Munster at home playing for the opportunity to get to the playoffs.

"Regardless of how well he does or someone else does, if we win the game that's got to be our focus.

"Whatever you can do to contribute, brilliant, but it's not about trying to be the man.

"It's more about the team and how we perform, and honestly I haven't thought much about South Africa."

He will, though, have one South African in his sights this Saturday.

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