New challenge, old enemy
Ireland U-20 coach Mike Ruddock faces a daunting opening assignment against England at the World Cup but the Grand Slam-winner is energised by the talented youth around him
WHEN it comes to kicking off tournaments as underdogs against England, Ireland U-20 coach Mike Ruddock has decent form.
Back in February 2005, Ruddock was in charge of a Wales team that went into their opening Six Nations clash against then world champions England as an unproven force, but, on a memorable day at the Millennium Stadium, eked out an unexpected 11-9 victory that would serve as a launchpad for their first Grand Slam in 27 years.
History does not reflect too kindly on that England side, which was without a clutch of World Cup-winners and contained the likes of Andy Hazell, Chris Jones, Charlie Hodgson and an 18-year-old Mathew Tait, and the challenge facing Ruddock's Irish side tomorrow in Treviso could be said to be more daunting.
As usual, England's U-20s are physically enormous and go into the tournament as one of the favourites, having scorched to this year's Six Nations title, rounded off with a six-try 46-10 hammering of Ireland in Athlone. The fact Ruddock must then steel his men for the challenge of South Africa four days later, adds to the size of the task, but the Welshman's solitary focus is on upsetting the English.
Reasons for positivity stem from the fact that Ireland have a host of players back who were not available in March and go into the clash on the back of encouraging wins over Munster and Leinster Development sides.
Indeed, with the squad benefiting from the input of the likes of Ireland defence coach Les Kiss, forwards coach Gert Smal and Leinster scrummaging guru Reggie Corrigan, Ruddock says preparations could not have gone any better.
"It's good for us," he insists of the tough start. "I don't think England will totally underestimate us, but the fact we will end up with eight or nine changes before we play them will mean they will be seeing a very different Ireland this time. They will be impressed with the areas where we were deficient last time, such as our tackling and breakdown work.
"Even though they have bigger lads, I was quite annoyed with the defence the last time. We were going in too high and falling off tackles. We need to take them low. In fairness to Les Kiss, we got a great boost when he came out, he was fantastic and Gert came out as well and had a look at our line-out, so our preparations couldn't have gone any better -- we are in a good place.
"Our philosophy is to play some high-tempo rugby. I think we have the tools and if we get the set-piece, defence and breakdown right, then we can have a right go."
Ruddock, a flanker for Swansea in the 1980s, had his playing career cut short by injury and coached in Ireland with Bective Rangers before guiding Swansea to a win over the 1992 Australians and then had a stint with Leinster, whom he helped adjust to the switch to professionalism.
In his third spell in Ireland, Ruddock has noted the huge improvement in skill levels of players coming through and believes the success of Leinster and Munster in the Heineken Cup and Magners League (sponsored by RaboDirect from next season), respectively, can inspire his squad in Italy.
"Irish rugby's trademark used to be its physicality and passion and there is still that there -- as you can see with Munster, Leinster and Ulster this season," he said.
"But you don't get silverware without being skilful as well as competitive. Definitely, there are a new crop of players who are coming through with a much higher set of skill levels than when I was here back in the 1990s."
One area of disquiet when this Ireland squad was announced was the fact it contained only two players from Munster, but Ruddock says a longer-term view needs to be taken on this issue.
"I've been a national coach in Wales and I know how difficult it is for everyone to agree on selection. I pick the best players I can pick and I know that these things come in cycles. There is talent coming through in Munster -- you only have to look at the likes of hooker Niall Scannell, who is an excellent player. He was on our stand-by list, but had to drop out because of a shoulder operation and there are others I am looking at for next year.
"So, if you are going to be looking to analyse the production of any province you need to look at an extended period, not a snapshot."
Last summer, Ruddock's son Rhys was called up from the U-20 World Cup in Argentina to help out on Ireland's tour to New Zealand and Australia. It was a surprise move by coach Declan Kidney, but one that was rewarded by the 19-year-old's excellent showing against the New Zealand Maori. The flanker's progress is an example to the current U-20s.
"It shows the quality of this tournament that Rhys was able to handle the step-up last year. I was a little bit concerned at him being thrown in at 19 against the Maoris, but he did really well. And if he is doing that, and you are looking at other players who have come through this -- the likes of Dominic Ryan and Peter O'Mahony -- then that is the standard."
If luring Rhys Ruddock from Wales was a notable coup, then having his Grand Slam-winning father coaching here ranks alongside. Ruddock Snr is an obvious candidate for any senior positions that arise over the next couple of years, but, for now, the 51-year-old is extremely happy where he is.
"I really wanted to work at underage level. I had never done it before -- I'd done 20-odd years of seniors -- and I am loving it. I like to think some of the experiences I have had over the years are beneficial to the players and I am looking at staying in this role for another couple of years if possible and who knows what will happen after that?
"I'm enjoying being back in Ireland, watching my boys playing rugby, it's ticking a lot of boxes for me. But most of all, I am really enjoying my coaching."
With Rhys' brother Ciaran also doing well with Leinster, there is an undeniable sense of Wales' loss being Ireland's gain when it comes to the Ruddocks -- if Mike can oversee another momentous win over the English tomorrow, the family's stock will go up another notch.