Ruddock gets armband as Leinster put faith in youth
RHYS Ruddock's rapid rise through the ranks continues this evening as the 20-year-old assumes the Leinster captaincy against Aironi at the RDS (7.05).
The Dublin-born blind-side, who played most of his underage rugby in Wales, is still on a development contract and has started only eight games for the province, but despite the presence of more experienced players in the squad, Joe Schmidt has made Ruddock the youngest captain in Leinster's history.
It is another indication of how highly Ruddock is rated and he displayed his leadership credentials when he led the Ireland U-20s to the Six Nations title last season. Having been involved with the Ireland training squads in recent weeks, he has a chance to further impress the international coaching team.
Indeed, with French clubs circling, it could be an added incentive to stop the impressive tyro's head from being turned.
Third in the Magners League, Leinster's poor start to the season means Schmidt's charges cannot afford many slip-ups in their race for the play-offs. They had plenty of momentum going into the Six Nations break, but with so many changes to the team it will be hard to keep it going.
Blackrock starlets Andrew Conway and Brendan Macken are plucked from the U-20 set-up while Eoin O'Malley makes his first start since the win over Connacht on New Year's Day. The pack has a more experienced look about it, with Kevin McLaughlin lining up in the second row.
Aironi would seem the perfect opposition for a team shorn of experience. The Italians are still without a win in the league but, while they will hardly be high on confidence, they do have a reasonably experienced line-up that includes Marco Bortolami, who skippers the side, and former Munster No 8 Nick Williams.
February matches are crucial for those players lacking in first-team opportunity and Stephen Keogh is one of those hoping to use his first start since November to win his place back after a difficult period out of the team.
"February's a good springboard for lads who haven't been playing to push for the Heineken Cup quarter-final coming up," Keogh said. "When you're not getting games, a lot of lads can get frustrated, bitter and twisted. It's important to train hard and make sure the head's right when the chance comes."
LEINSTER -- I Nacewa; A Conway, B Macken, E O'Malley, D Kearney; I Madigan, P O'Donohoe; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, C Newland; K McLaughlin, D Toner; R Ruddock (capt), D Ryan, S Keogh. Replacements: J Harris Wright, J McGrath, S Shawe, E O'Donoghue, P Ryan/S Jennings, I Boss, I McKinley, N Morris.
AIRONI -- P Buso; K Robertson, G Pizarro, H San Martin, D Demas; J Marshall, T Tebaldi; A De Marchi, R Santamaria, F Staibano; M Bortolami (cap), J Furno; N Cattina, J Erasmus, N Williams. Replacements: L Ferraro, A De Marchi, L Redolfini, G Biagi, A Benatti, P Travagli, A Benettin, M Pratichetti.
Ref -- N Owens (WRU).
Leinster v Aironi,
Live, RTE 2, 7.05