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Ruddock ready to be Leinster's leading light

Rhys Ruddock during the Leinster Captain’s Run at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth. Photo: Sportsfile
Rhys Ruddock during the Leinster Captain’s Run at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

As he makes his way through the lobby of Leinster's swanky team hotel in an upmarket area of Johannesburg, in search of a quiet spot to chat, Rhys Ruddock is stopped by a local woman who wants to know if he is a rugby player.

He patiently explains who he is and what he's doing here, before she allows him to move on with a smile. South Africa is a brave new frontier for Irish rugby and name recognition is going to take some time.

On his last visit to the city, he started a historic near-miss for Ireland at Ellis Park and now he's back as Leinster's captain for the Guinness PRO14 clash with the Southern Kings today.

Ruddock leads Leinster into battle in Port Elizabeth this evening and the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium is where he last won an Ireland cap before captaining a depleted national team on their three-match tour of the United States and Japan last summer.

He is 26 now and he won his 14th, 15th and 16th caps in June, a total that he would like to have been higher given he made his debut for his country as a 19-year-old in 2010.


Much water has passed under the bridge since he was parachuted in from the U-20 World Cup by Declan Kidney to play the New Zealand Maori and Australia, untimely injuries and fierce competition for back-row spots has limited his international involvement.

By all accounts, his captaincy was well received by the coaches last summer and his late-season performances for Leinster meant he carried excellent form into the tour. Now, his task is sustaining that form into 2017/18 and staking a claim to retain his place in the Ireland back-row come November.

This two-match mini-tour gives him a chance to put himself in the shop window given he finds himself the leader of an inexperienced side far away from home.

It's nothing new for a man who has always been asked to captain sides from an early age.

Skippering Ireland came naturally to him, but it was also a little bit more special.

"Loved it," he says of the experience. "It was a massive honour, a huge privilege. The day to day, I got a lot of enjoyment from it. Being involved and playing is always something pretty special. I still haven't got a massive amount of caps, every opportunity is important to me.

"To get three games was awesome and I'm really proud of that.

"To captain the squad was great. I'd played with or captained a lot of the guys at U-20s level before, there were a lot of Leinster guys who are relatively young and starting out, so I'd be one of the more senior Leinster guys, a little bit older and that made the job a little bit easier.

"I felt more comfortable doing it with the type of guys I had around me. It was a really positive experience."

Some question whether captaincy is as big a deal as some in the media make it, but Joe Schmidt has always valued the role and has never given it out cheaply. When he handed the job to Ruddock, he was giving him a vote of confidence.

Ireland won all three games under his stewardship and he adapted to the demands well.

"There is more asked of you in terms of being the go-between between the coaches and the players and delivering on key messages, steering the ship in the right direction," he reflects.

"There was also the other sort of outside-of-rugby commitments in terms of little things like going to the Irish embassy in Japan and a Chamber of Commerce event which are not things you think about going over there but you have to be a part of that.

"It's pretty cool to meet Irish people living in Tokyo, to get a sense of life there and chatting to people like that.

"Come the weekend it was just about focusing on the game, but there was a bit more to fit into your preparation I suppose.

"With Joe there's always a sense of demanding leadership from players, whether it be the way you train, the way you carry yourself, the way you prepare... that's the same any time you're in camp. But there was a new group of players who were asked to step up and take more ownership.

"There was definitely growth in terms of younger players getting more leadership experience."

After playing in two of the three games on the 2016 South Africa tour, last season was another one largely lost to an ankle injury that required surgery but the flanker says he has learned to deal with the blows when they come having taken it all more personally at a younger age.

The conveyor belt keeps producing quality flankers out for his place but he believes he handles the pressure that brings better given his experience.


"There's probably even more competition for places than there was when I was younger with some of the young guys coming through, it's a hugely competitive area," he says.

"It's something that I'm used to, I'm used to fighting for my position in teams, having disappointments and bouncing back.

"I suppose it's something that I've learnt over the years, it allows me to enjoy it a bit more and stay a bit more level.

"I just focus on the process within reason, while you're obviously going to feel the ups and downs you can't get too hung up on selection and injury because they're essentially out of your control, making sure that whatever situation you're in you give it your absolute best and then at the end of the day you can be happy with whatever happens.

"Before, I probably got hung up on injuries and non-selections, there's so many ups and downs in rugby if you do that you won't enjoy it.

"That comes with experience and maturity, it's better to enjoy the ride."

The ride has taken him back to Port Elizabeth, an away fixture no one at Leinster was predicting they'd be playing when last year came to a disappointing conclusion.

Back at the starting line after coming up short in two semi-finals, today's skipper is determined that they will take the hurt of the losses to Scarlets and Clermont and channel them into a better campaign.

"It was really disappointing, in the Clermont game we started so poorly and gave ourselves a mountain to climb but gave it a good crack, threw everything at them and fell short," he reflects.

"We learned the hard way not to give a team like Clermont such a good foothold in the game and then have to scrap for everything to get it back.

"That was disappointing, but the Scarlets game we hadn't learnt from it and we didn't get ourselves in a strong position in that game early on either.

"Having had the time off and reviewed the games last season and how it all panned out; there were a lot more positives from the season as a whole. It's just a shame that you remember the semi-finals the most, they generate the most hurt.

"There's a want to try and kick on and learn from those mistakes, those defeats, but we gained a lot of confidence from the way we played last season and the momentum we built.

"If we can keep that going for longer than we did last season then we'll be in a good place."

Irish Independent

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