Wednesday 21 August 2019

Back-row competition puts Ruddock's Japan plane ticket in doubt

Ireland’s Rhys Ruddock leads by example. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland’s Rhys Ruddock leads by example. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Joe Schmidt had only been working as Leinster head coach for six months before he made Rhys Ruddock one of the province's youngest ever captains at the age of 20.

It was clear that Schmidt had already seen major leadership qualities in Ruddock, even at such a young age, and his cause was certainly helped by the fact that the previous season he had captained the Ireland U-20s to just a second Grand Slam at age-grade level in the country's history.

At the time Ruddock was given the armband he was actually still only on a development contract with Leinster and when you consider that far more experienced pros such as Isa Nacewa were included in the starting XV for that league clash against Aironi, it was a remarkable testament to the esteem in which he was held.

Fast-forward six years from that memorable evening at the RDS and Schmidt once again named Ruddock as captain - this time for the small matter of Ireland's 2017 summer tour of America and Japan.

As he had done all those years ago, Ruddock thrived with the extra responsibility on his shoulders and enhanced his reputation as one of the finest leaders in the country.

It was no surprise then when he kept the armband for the win over Fiji later that year, as well as against Italy and the USA last November.

This afternoon at Aviva Stadium, Ruddock will lead out his country for the seventh time, looking to maintain his 100 per cent winning record, which is a hugely impressive achievement for a player who has had to scrap for every one of his 21 caps.

Injuries at crucial times have hampered his progress, yet there is a reason Schmidt continues to rely on him to guide his younger players.

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In any other era, one suspects that the 28-year old would have been an automatic, first-choice starter, yet such has been the stiff competition in the back-row Ruddock has only clocked up 10 international starts.

Of those 10 starts, five have come against tier-two nations, which on the face of it would appear to leave Ruddock facing another fight to make a World Cup squad.

Four years ago, the call didn't go his way, but he did manage to earn a call-up when Peter O'Mahony was ruled out of the tournament ahead of the quarter-final defeat to Argentina.

That same man stands in his way this time around and despite what certain supporters may think, O'Mahony is, barring injury, almost certain to start the opener against Scotland next month.

With Sean O'Brien ruled out, Ruddock would ordinarily be seen as the next man in, but that is now also less certain as Tadhg Beirne has been training regularly at blindside in recent weeks and Jordi Murphy is also in fine form.

Pound-for-pound, that particular call may well go in Ruddock's favour, yet all three are extremely versatile, which makes what will be tough decision for Schmidt even more difficult.

Ruddock, however, finished the season with a timely reminder that he is also a man for the big occasion as his performance in the PRO14 final win over Glasgow was exceptional.

His knack for making others around him look good with his relentless work-rate is a major plus, and he must now find a way to pick up where he left off with Leinster.

"The captaincy is obviously a great honour, but at the end of the day, you can't let it get in the way of doing your job to the best of your ability," he said this week, in typically modest fashion.

"But I don't think being labelled as captain is enough. I'll be judged on how I perform and what I add to the group."

Becoming a regular captain of your country must be an immense honour, but when you consider the level of opposition those games have come against, Ruddock will be fully aware of the potential pitfalls that brings when it comes to making the final cut.

With the front-liners likely to be rested against Samoa and Russia in Japan, having a reliable captain to ensure that standards do not drop will be important.

Schmidt knows better than anyone just how valuable Ruddock is in that regard. It's up to him now to make it impossible for the Ireland head coach to overlook him for a second World Cup.

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