Monday 11 December 2017

Caldwell eyes Irish spot after clean start in Bath

David Kelly

David Kelly

Wednesday afternoon at midday and the elegant Georgian streets of Bath are eerily quiet as the imposing figure of Ryan Caldwell collects his youngest son, Jonah, from the creche.

On Sunday afternoon at the same time, though, his footsteps will be followed by thousands. The European champions are coming to town and this historic city will be rocking.

"This is just what I needed," says Caldwell who, at 6' 7", is as imposing a presence as any of the magnificent architectural edifices that tower above Bath's picturesque home, the Recreation Ground. "A change of scenery."

Since pitching up in the West Country, Caldwell and his family -- wife Fiona and their other children, Ethan and Ella -- haven't paused to regret the collective decision they made last summer to quit Ulster.

When it started to seem like you needed a South African accent to get ahead at Ravenhill, the tug at Caldwell's sleeve became fiercer to resist.

When Bath came knocking, promising more rugby and a new start, weighing up the options seemed futile.

"It's brought the best out of me as a player," says the twice-capped Irish international of a move which, at 27, arrived at a defining moment in his hitherto unfulfilled career. "I'm playing good rugby. The coaches are happy. It's a good place to be right now for me.

"Some people can stay at the one club and they're successful doing that. For others, though, it can feel like treading water and sometimes you have to bite the bullet and make the move for the good of your career.

"I've done that and hopefully it can stand to me, not just on the rugby field but in terms of quality of life as well.

"There were a few factors behind the move. Things had gone stale for me at Ulster. I wasn't performing as well as I had been.


"So I thought that this was the time to make a change and push my career on a little bit. I haven't looked back. I've really enjoyed it here and I've been given the opportunity to play."

Others have made the decision to flee the cosseted haven of Ulster and prospered: Roger Wilson and Tommy Bowe spring to mind. Some, like Ed O'Donoghue, have flopped.

The towering figure of Caldwell wants to soar even higher. Having won his only two caps as a replacement on the 2009 tour to North America -- against Canada and the USA -- Caldwell still nurses a desire to play for his country.

"I still have ambitions to play for Ireland," he stresses. Declan Kidney will be a keen observer on Sunday.

"I'll always have that ambition to represent Ireland. Definitely. So it's a big week for me on a personal level to perform in front of whoever is watching. Hopefully I can bring a good game and people can look at me again."

With Ireland's second-row stalwarts ageing and few signs of utterly convincing replacements on the horizon, Caldwell is eager to return to the Irish fray; if not, perhaps, relishing the prospect of tangling with Paul O'Connell again.

"Oh that!" he smiles. "That" is a training session in Limerick before the 2007 World Cup which has entered rugby folklore: O'Connell flooring Caldwell with a punch unmatched since Smokin' Joe smote Ali at the Garden.

Bernard Jackman's colourful description of the one-sided battle in his autobiography embossed the event.

"Caldy immediately went into spasm," Jackman writes. "His eyes were rolling in his head. Blood started shooting from his mouth. His arms and legs started to shake violently."

Caldwell was rushed to hospital and the whistle-free firsts v seconds clash was abandoned. O'Connell apologised profusely to the squad the following morning.

At the end of the week, then coach Eddie O'Sullivan named his World Cup squad. Caldwell, still hospitalised, didn't make the cut. Over four years on, Caldwell merely shrugs at the memory.

"Ha, that's all water under the bridge for me now," he laughs. "It's something that boiled over a little bit. I think 'Birch' (Jackman) probably made a little bit more out of it than it actually was.

"Maybe Paul just saw red and unfortunately I was on the other end of it."

Ironically, Caldwell's offside counter-rucking had inflamed O'Connell's passion; the former RBAI pupil's propensity for indiscipline earned him, whether fairly or not, a name for being a yellow card machine.


"I came on the scene as a youngster with Ulster and I got a few yellow cards and suddenly I got a reputation. But this season in the Premiership, it's a new competition, a change of scene and there's been no yellow cards," he says.

"My discipline has been absolutely fine, with a very small penalty count against me.

"People might naturally say that has to be down to maturity, but I think the change of competition, the change of referees has helped. They're not talking to each other and warning each other to look out for this guy. The bottom line is my discipline has got better and hopefully it stays that way."

Bath's reputation needs reforming too. Slumped at the wrong end of the Premiership, stilted by the lack of opportunity to either redevelop or move away from the charming, albeit anachronistic Rec, this once dominant force of the English game are in the doldrums.

"It's tough for us," he admits. "The Premiership is really tight at the minute. It's about us looking at ourselves. We haven't been hammered, we just haven't been taking our chances.

"We have a good squad, with so many international players who can step up in abundance and be influential. It's up to us this week and perhaps the underdogs status might help to take the pressure off us. We just need to find our feet."

Caldwell has already managed to do just that in a few months. Now he's hoping the rest of his squad can follow.

Irish Independent

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