Tuesday 16 January 2018

Rhys Ruddock: Backing himself to succeed

Rhys Ruddock has always been ahead of the curve and he'll need to be this season, as he tells Brendan Fanning

In June 2010, Rhys Ruddock was minding his own business, and those of his players, captaining the Ireland under 20 squad at the Junior World Championship in Argentina when he got a call to pack his bag and get to the airport. Thankfully, the emergency was not at home, but in New Zealand where in the space of half an hour in their opening Test against the All Blacks, Ireland had managed to lose two back rowers. And, with a capacity to spring the odd surprise, Declan Kidney sent for the 19-year-old Ruddock to drop the 20s and pick up with the seniors. Still a member of the Leinster Academy, he had played three games for his province.

Already wrecked when he arrived in Auckland, he then had an eight-hour stopover -- transit time there is good preparation for what New Zealand does not have to offer -- before completing the journey to Rotorua. Then it was straight into a cab to the hotel, followed by a team meeting where he was named to start against the Maori four nights later.

By his own account, he was "all over the shop" at his first session, part jet lag and part star-struck. By the Friday night, he had settled, and played really well in a game that threatened to race away from Ireland before half-time. By the time the tour had arrived in Brisbane the next week, Ruddock was hard to spot. As in, he looked like the rest of them. He belonged. Physically, and the way he carried himself, he looked nothing like a rookie bolter.

Even then, 15 months out from the tournament, we were on World Cup watch. If Kidney had gone out on a limb to pluck Ruddock from distance then surely it wasn't such a stretch that he might reach in the same direction again.

The problem however was that the back rower had been an emergency call. He would need time on the ball to make a case to be something different. And in Leinster, time was hard to come by. So after four games of the new season, when his only involvement had been a losing one, away to Treviso, Rhys Ruddock was asking himself questions.

"The whole season was kind of up and down for me," he says now. "Some games I was playing and other games I was 23rd man or whatever. It was hard to aspire to the World Cup squad when you're not really playing for your province. To be honest, it was four or five games into the Magners League where I thought I've hardly played a game yet. So I was a little bit anxious, but looking forward to getting an opportunity."

Like when? Seán O'Brien, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip and Dominic Ryan were all fit. So was Stephen Keogh. And by the time Kevin McLaughlin had regained his fitness, what might have happened to young Ruddock?

Statistically, 2010/'11 was a decent season, with 17 appearances. And for the away tie with Aironi Joe Schmidt had given the captaincy to the back rower who was probably having his best spell: a mix of training with the Ireland Six Nations squad, which was an experience-gathering exercise, and putting in some decent games for Leinster when he would be released back to the province.

So when it came to the hectic last lap and they had the Heineken Cup in the bag, we wondered if Schmidt would freshen up the team and turn to Ruddock for the Magners League final against Munster. So did he.

"Definitely. I remember setting my target on that and not really getting involved in the celebrations after the Heineken Cup because I wanted to play that final and from a few weeks out that was my goal. I wanted to push to get involved in that."

The day after that Heineken Cup final, while the second wave of celebrations were just starting, Ruddock played for Leinster Development against the Ireland under 20 side in front of a handful of spectators at Merrion Road. He needed to have a blinder, and didn't.

By then his Decision Day had passed. Leinster had put a contract on the table which suggested they had some faith in the player. Ruddock had responded in a manner which declared some faith in himself. He would commit to the cause for one year only, by which time he would need to have made his mark.

"I love being part of the squad here and what I want to do is break through in Leinster over the next year or so," he says. "But you have to look realistically at the amount of international back rows, top-quality players who have been playing week in week out. If that means I'm not going to be getting opportunities, if that means I'm going to struggle to get game time and struggle to progress, then I had to leave my options open. If it doesn't work out here do I want to be stuck a year down the line not playing any rugby at that level and maybe missing my chance?

"It was about backing myself, so that after a year Leinster would be after me and other clubs willing to take me on, so that I'd be in a good position to crack on and play at the top level."

Did they put a lot of pressure on for a longer deal? There is a long pause, as he frames his sentence.

"Well, I think it would have been preferred if I'd signed for two years. I hope to play well enough to earn a contract next year."

To that end this season started promisingly. Ruddock was voted by his peers as part of a leadership group while the World Cup contingent was away, and Schmidt went a step further and gave him the captaincy. Leading teams out is familiar territory for him. When his dad Mike moved the family back to Wales after his own Leinster coaching stint was over, 10 years ago -- Rhys was born in Dublin and older brother Ciaran, also on Leinster's books, had been born in Wales -- the younger son went on to captain underage sides at club and national level before accepting an offer to hop back over here and try out with the Ireland under 20s. Soon enough he would be captain there too.

Leading Leinster clearly was a taller order. And soon enough it went south, losing away to the Ospreys and then going down at home two weeks later to Glasgow. Towards the end of the Glasgow game, Ruddock was flanked by Academy player Jordi Murphy and hooker Richardt Strauss. It looked like he had been lumbered with an extraordinary load.

"Yeah, it crossed my mind," he says. "You're going to worry and have some doubts about things but in fairness to the rest of the lads there was a very positive attitude going into that next game and that rubs off on your own attitude," he says. "Nobody got too down about it. Also it's not the most important

thing but there was that little bit of worry about other people, that they'd see the result and think: 'Oh this young lad's captain, is it his fault?'

"So there was quite a lot to think about and worry about but having a short turnaround to the next game was pretty good. Thankfully, we got it together for that and since then I think we've kicked on and made some progress.

"I'd like to think I didn't change what I was doing just because I was labelled captain for the start of the season. I didn't want all of a sudden to be this different person or the lads would have been: 'Hold on what's going on here?' I wanted to maintain that same ethos I had before and have the same attitude going into training and into games. During the week I spoke to a few people about it: coaches, and my dad, and got a bit of advice about it. Early in the week I put it behind me.

"In fairness to my dad he wouldn't force a lot on me but if ever I needed any advice it's nice to go to him for a bit of confidence because he's been a through a hell of a lot more than me in the rugby world."

Schmidt and forwards' coach Jono Gibbes are hot on the idea of dawn not rising the morning after a game without absorbing the lessons of the night before. That goes for the players as much as themselves. Ruddock would be good at this. And if he continues then this 20-year-old will be captain of his country, for he has all the qualities. It remains to be seen though how the coach uses him now that Leinster's three back rowers have returned from New Zealand, but you don't install someone as captain for two months unless you believe they are a long-term bet. He will be needed against Munster next weekend.

"They're the form team at the moment and got off to a really good start, topping the pool by six points, and with their key players coming back now you can imagine they'll be well prepared. As will we. It's massively important for us to go into that with the same desire to win as it always is between us. I can't see the game disappointing in terms of what it offers."

And what about himself?

"I haven't reached anywhere near my potential," he says. "And I know there's a lot more to come for me. Last year I was slow to start and if that's anything to go by then I think I've a lot more to come. It's all about getting into the starting team."

He's going the right way about it.

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