Ruddock knows he cannot drop high standards
The Big Interview: Rhys Ruddock
It's just over five years since Leinster Rugby and Exeter Chiefs first locked horns.
It was in the RDS Arena on a bright October day in the first round of the Heineken Cup. Back then Exeter were taking their maiden European steps while Leinster were the aristocrats of Europe with three stars on their jersey.
The sense was that this would be a good game to get Leinster into the swing of things for a European defence. Instead, it took a 73rd-minute Johnny Sexton kick to give a mightily relieved home side a 9-6 win.
The fact that Tom Hayes (brother of John), an Exeter man on the losing side, won the man-of-the-match award was further illustration of how the game unfolded and how lucky Leinster were.
However, flash forward to this weekend and there is no talk of easy games.
"Absolutely not," concurs Rhys Ruddock. "I think if you look across our pool and there just isn't any room for that sort of mind-set and that continues this Sunday in Sandy Park.
"We always knew that it was a tricky pool even before it started. It maybe didn't grab some of the headlines but when you break it down, we had two teams in Glasgow and Montpellier that we have had massive issues with over the last few seasons. And then you had the reigning English champions in Exeter.
"I suppose since then they've all just kicked on. Montpellier are just off top spot in France, Glasgow are unbeaten in the PRO14 and Exeter are tearing away at the top of the Premiership.
"If anything, as the weeks have gone on the task has become even more difficult and we saw that last weekend with how Exeter put Bath away.
"Any one of the four teams could still make it out of this pool and that is what is intriguing ahead of the back-to-back games."
Leinster aren't looking too shabby either and while they may have lost two games in the Guinness PRO14, they can't have done much more in the Champions Cup. Ten points out of ten from games against Montpellier and Glasgow sees them on top of Pool 3. But now comes their biggest test of the season.
"I think it is. I think they're playing some of the best rugby of any team in Europe and they've the results to back it up," Ruddock adds.
"They've beaten Montpellier away, Glasgow at home and are unbeaten at home in the Premiership.
"They've beaten Saracens. Even their two losses were away from home and they picked up losing bonus points so they are staying in games to the end."
Asked about their threats he'll happily let the men outside him worry about numbers nine to 15, because he feels that in numbers one to eight, the Leinster pack will have their hands full.
"I look at their pack and how they play and there is huge variety to it. Yet they can do the grunt work and they've big men like their props (Alec) Hepburn and (Harry) Williams so they're not afraid of that. They've Thomas Waldrom at the base of the scrum and he's scoring a try every second game.
"But they can move it too and they like to go wide. That being said it's all based on a really strong set-piece, they'll back their lineout maul inside your 22 and they score plenty of tries from that.
"So for us we think we know what's coming but like every game you know they'll have something held back and we have to be ready for whatever that is."
While Ruddock wasn't involved in the 2012 RDS match, he was involved for the return fixture in January 2013 in Sandy Park where Leinster ran out 20-29 winners. He came on for 20 minutes off the bench for Kevin McLaughlin.
A cursory glance through both squads from that day shows that many have moved on but there are plenty of familiar faces too.
For Leinster, 11 of that match-day 23 are likely to see action on Sunday.
Captain Cullen is now coach Cullen of course, but leaving the former lock aside, Cian Healy ran away with the man-of-the-match award after a barn-storming display in the loose. Rob Kearney bagged a try with Johnny Sexton kicking nine with the boot.
They've gone there before and have performed. They won't fear the task at hand but they'll have the utmost respect for their hosts.
Like Leinster, Ruddock feels that the retention for Exeter of key figures has driven them from a maiden European voyage to the pinnacle of English rugby in only five seasons.
"Rob Baxter is still head coach and you have the likes of Gareth Steenson there at 10 who is still pulling the strings for them.
"I think those two in particular have really driven the culture of the club, there is a clear sense of identity but also a style of playing the game that they all clearly buy into. Lots of local lads playing for their local team. That's very hard to replicate and they've done a good job at that."
On Sunday, something has to give. What gives Ruddock optimism that it will be Exeter to blink first?
"I just think this season that we have seen some huge positives often times when up against it and that's when it's easier to shrink and to go into your shell but instead I think we have seen really good character from the team.
"I was involved that day against Cheetahs when we lost but look how we bounced back against Munster and into Europe. The same against Glasgow when we lost in the PRO14 but then we bounced back with two bonus-point wins.
"We are doing all of that often with 20 or 21-year-olds playing and really playing well. It is another step up this weekend but I think we've seen plenty of positive signs this season to make us believe that we can perform on Sunday and we can't wait."
He says the last bit with a smile. He's enjoying his rugby.
"I am. I look back at last year and the tail end of it and I was incredibly fortunate to be asked to captain a first tour for myself with Ireland and incredibly proud that we came out of that with plenty of new faces, new experiences, but ultimately too with three wins from three.
"Then into the new season with Leinster I feel good and I'm enjoying myself. I again felt very proud to be in with Ireland for the Guinness Series and to be involved in all three Tests and to captain the side against Fiji, again, I'm just really enjoying my rugby and hopefully we won't be too far away with Leinster or with Ireland this season."
Long may the enjoyment last.
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