WHEN Rhys Ruddock came of age three years ago, Munster came calling – tentatively – but the then Leinster coach firmly rebuffed any potential transfer swoop from their southern rivals.
We’d be very disappointed to lose Rhys, he has captained the side seven or eight times and that’s a measure of the respect we have for him as a potential leader of the club,” said the then Leinster coach, a certain Joe Schmidt.
Now 23 – he turns 24 next month – Ruddock is finally starting to come of age on the pitch as he brings the consistency and physicality that most of us expected would transform him into an Ireland regular when he got that dramatic summer tour call-up for his country in 2010.
“He probably struggled for a year or so with injuries and by his own admission he wasn’t as confident physically as he was before,” says his current coach, Matt O’Connor.
“Some of that comes with conditioning, some with game-time at the top level. But in some of the big games last season, he was phenomenal for us and for Ireland too. He’s got a great rugby pedigree and the sky is the limit for him.”
Schmidt, now head honcho of the national side, has always retained his faith in Ruddock’s ability and he was man of the match in the second Test win against Argentina with an outstanding display of ball-carrying.
Given the likely absences of Sean O’Brien and Cian Healy from both provincial and national colours this autumn, Ruddock’s heft may be primed for a slot on the bench to face the formidable South Africans in November.
“I felt like last year I made some progress and put my name forward for selection in terms of the Irish set-up as well,” says Ruddock.
“I guess concentration at the moment is with Leinster, especially after the two losses. We really feel like we have our own ship to steer here, to put things to right, especially from what went on last week.
“Obviously, the Irish set-up is on my mind. I will try to put in some big performances moving forward towards the November internationals. At the moment, I have only played one game this season. It is a bit early to be thinking about that.”
For his part, O’Connor reckons that Ruddock remains a preferred option on the blindside, particularly given the extraordinarily freakish durability of No 8 Jamie Heaslip.
O’Connor tips Ruddock to become an Ireland regular too, albeit Peter O’Mahony may severely argue that toss.
“Rhys showed at the latter end of last season that he has what it takes to become a world-class six. His form for us and on the Ireland tour was phenomenal,” said the Leinster coach.
“He’s working really hard and there’s an opportunity to get a lot of minutes with us. He’ll get better and better the more he plays.
“The lineout skills he has puts him in a really good space to play six. He has a fantastic work-rate and he’s a tremendous person in the environment.
“He’s got a great understanding of the game. Thankfully because of Jamie’s form, he doesn’t get many opportunities to play at eight for us but I see him as a long-term option at six for many years, both for Ireland and for Leinster.”
This evening Leinster will be relieved to receive a compliant Welsh side as they embrace home comforts after two difficult days on the road.
Scarlets were thumped here last time out and a similar result is expected tonight, as anyone who saw Cardiff’s implosion at home to Ulster last week can testify, enabling Leinster to be in chipper form ahead of the little skirmish with Munster across the bridge next week.
Leinster struggled for accuracy last week – O’Connor still bemoaned coughing up at least 20 points in Galway – and Cardiff’s selection of two definitive No 7s will attempt to frustrate the home side at source this evening.
True, the visitors have a pair of Lions in their front-row and a world-class finisher in Alex Cuthbert out wide, as O’Connor dutifully trumpeted, but the sum of the admittedly quality individual parts has regularly been found wanting.
Leinster have opted to make Gordon D’Arcy’s first appearance of the season a re-staging of that impromptu midfield axis – alongside Ian Madigan – that thrived so wonderfully in the final of this competition last May against Glasgow, after Brian O’Driscoll had hobbled from the fray.
Marty Moore also makes his seasonal bow, so too the Australian international, Kane Douglas, who has turned his back on an international career to forge a club career in Europe; his second-row partnership with Devin Toner will guarantee ball from touch.
“To have a guy of Kane’s age profile and those physical dimensions, to have that calibre in our squad for three years is a huge boost,” said O’Connor.
“It’s a brilliant opportunity for the locks in the Academy to see what this guy has achieved and it’s a huge boost for the group.”
Expect Leinster to be much too strong.
Leinster – R Kearney; F McFadden, G D’Arcy, I Madigan, D Fanning; J Gopperth, E Reddan; M Bent, S Cronin, M Moore; D Toner, K Douglas, R Ruddock, D Ryan, J Heaslip (capt). Reps: B Byrne, E Byrne, T Furlong, M McCarthy, J Conan, L McGrath, S Crosbie, M McGrath.
Cardiff Blues – R Patchell; A Cuthbert, C Allen, D Hewitt, G Watkins, G Davies, L Jones; G Jenkins, K Dacey, A Jones, J Hoeata, C Dicomidis, J Turnbull, S Warburton, J Navidi (capt).
Reps: M Rees, S Hobbs, T Filise, M Cook, M Vosawai, T Knoyle, A Thomas, D Fish.
Ref – I Davies (WRU).
Leinster v Cardiff Blues,
Live, TG4, 7.35