Fishing, Lampard and an assassin’s mindset, all part of Leinster lock’s quest to be the best he can be
It’s Tuesday morning in the front square of Trinity College and a young man with a huge frame negotiates his e-bike across the cobbles, past the tourists and the students to our meeting point beneath the Campanile.
Despite standing at 6ft 6in and pushing 18 stone, Ryan Baird blends into the crowd at the university where he studies business and computer science, alongside a rugby career that has brought eight Ireland caps and 39 Leinster appearances.
Within the professional game, he stands out for two reasons. The first is obvious: Baird is an incredibly gifted athlete capable of moments of rare quality. The other is less apparent because the 23-year-old has kept a relatively low profile during his senior career.
Within seconds of sitting down at one of the many picnic benches littered across the campus, it’s clear Baird is cut from a different cloth compared to many of his contemporaries.
He loves to fish and spends his downtime cooking or watching Netflix documentaries about cooking. Indeed, he’s gone as far as to have met a host of Dublin’s top chefs to get a sense of whether he’d like to open a restaurant one day.
Last summer, he stopped by the Chicago Bears training centre and swapped jerseys with the players as he took in another professional sporting environment. He’s clearly curious about the world.
Whatever you glean from his relaxed demeanour, however, it is clear from an hour spent in his company that Baird is a determined, serious rugby player with big ambitions who has the self-awareness to articulate what he needs to do to achieve them.
“I’m nowhere near my potential,” he says. “I haven’t achieved anywhere near what I want to achieve. That’s my motivation.
“You have to have perspective. I’ve played nearly 10 times for Ireland, eight, plus the two Maori games. You have to take that into perspective, that’s a huge honour. My first cap in Italy was an incredible weekend.
“I have gained experience, but I think if you want to be great... being great is personal: Can you be the greatest version of yourself?
“I’ve worked with a sports psychologist [former Ireland scrum-half] Steve McIvor. We were discussing goals and I probably said, ‘I want to be the best ever.’ He said, ‘That’s so subjective. Someone else has to make that decision. Why don’t you frame it as ‘I want to be the greatest version of Ryan Baird I could ever be.’ So that’s what kind of drives me.
“You get distracted by coaches, players, fans, friends and family telling you you’re great, but then you can also get dragged down by that.
“Gary Keegan, the Irish sports performance coach, says process over outcome. If you focus on the process, on being the best version of yourself today, tomorrow, every single day... you’ll get there.”
Baird didn’t always have such clarity about his rugby ambitions. He comes from a rugby-mad house, the son of Andrew and Siobhan and older brother to Cameron and Zach.
He took the game up in Old Wesley before going to secondary school at The High School in Rathgar, where he was a winger who bounced between the ‘A’ and ‘B’ sides. It was when he changed schools, switching to St Michael’s College, that things began to change.
A combination of growing into his frame and the high-level coaching of Andy Skehan propelled him into the senior set-up and earned him provincial and national underage honours.
But it wasn’t until recently that Baird began to believe he could be a professional and make the grade.
“I was chatting to Caelan Doris last year about whether we would have made it in a different school, a different place,” he says.
“At the time, I was probably quite stubborn and I was like: ‘No, I think I would have made it anywhere.’ But I really started to realise being in Leinster and Ireland, the environment is incredibly crucial.
“I stick to my point, being it’s your family, the environment that’s created at home, your school, club – the community is really what kind of set people up. I’ve been very fortunate with the opportunities I’ve had.
“I would have doubted myself a lot. I never really thought I was particularly good. Mentally, over the last two years, I really started to develop. You mature. I started to understand the game a lot more.
“I don’t think I actually was ‘thinking’ until two years ago. I started to really question things, to understand why we do this and that. That’s when I started to realise, ‘Actually, I am good’. I’m understanding why we’re playing this and why we’re doing that. It’s continual evolution.
“My mum, she’d always say I’m the most positive, optimistic person you’ll meet. So, being on the ‘B’s in school, coming home every day and being disappointed. Even today, I don’t get picked for Leinster. She’s like, ‘I don’t get how you do it’.
“Within a couple of hours or the next day, I’ve reframed it to, ‘OK, here’s an opportunity to do this and this’. I just don’t like to give up.”
That self-awareness has led Baird to a realisation. He needs more aggression in his game and consistency across the season. If he didn’t realise it himself, his brother Cameron, a student in Barcelona who competes in rowing, is always ready to let him know where he needs to improve.
“He understands me incredibly well,” Baird says. “He knows when I’m playing well, not playing well and how I’m thinking. We would always discuss that, like, ‘Just stop overthinking and just get out there. You need to be more violent. More aggressive.’ Dan Leavy was his favourite player.
“I’d really trust his opinion. He’d be telling me stuff he thinks we should be doing, and honestly, sometimes it’s exactly what the coaches said.
“He’s a really tough mind in terms of rowing. He doesn’t do it professionally, but he puts in the hours to be a really good rower.
“Rowing is effectively mental torture. It really builds your resilience, a lot of mental toughness to overcome that feeling when you’re just f**ked.
“That feeds into the way he’d give feedback to me. He describes how Courtney Lawes could look so relaxed but absolutely kill an out-half. Then, he compares it to when we were young and fighting. He said I’d turn into an absolute psychopath and I’d kill him. He said: ‘You need to find that on the pitch.’
“I wouldn’t have the ability to just switch it on. It has to be something that’s in my mind. The way I stay in control is that, during the week, I put in the work in preparation for the technical aspect. The stuff that requires you to think a lot. Andy Farrell described it as the ‘assassin mindset’.
“You’re going around the pitch and you’re really kind of calm – executing your plays, lineouts, etc. Then once that second of aggression is required... boom,” he says while clicking his fingers.
“That’s what I’m trying to do, but I need to have that in my mind. Dan Leavy always said he’d do all his prep Monday, Tuesday was big, and then he’d flow into the week. Stu [Lancaster] would say the same: do your prep Monday, Tuesday, and from Wednesday, it’s getting your mental stuff right to be an aggressive person on the pitch.
“So, if I do that, I trust that I can deliver on the weekend when it comes. Then all I need to focus on is having it in my mind that I need to be incredibly aggressive.
“And incredibly aggressive for me, that encapsulates a lot of things. It’s like I’m bouncing on the line in defence. I’m scanning, I’m twitching, I’m ready to go. It’s not always just the contact. It could be the way I’m kind of around the pitch, carrying myself, communicating.
“It’s kind of a mindset, and if I don’t have that, I’m sure there are other people like me. Like, you don’t have that in the front of your mind. It’s hard to step into that different persona. So, that’s my main focus, the mental side and getting myself primed and ready to be physical.”
It’s an intense place to be and Baird knows switching off is an important part of the process, whether that’s by playing golf or escaping with his three-year-old golden retriever Mackenzie to fish for a couple of hours. “I just love being out in the open air,” he says. “Chasing that high of catching a fish is incredible, like a natural version of gambling. You’re just saying, ‘I’ll put one more cast in, one more cast in’, waiting, then you feel the rod go and you’re fighting like crazy.
“It’s effectively like two hours of meditation. You’re focused on just one thing and one thing only. There can be so many distractions as a rugby player. You can lose your job every week, or get it back every week in terms of playing. Selection is a big thing, the stress of training.
“You have to get your body in the best physical shape, which we have great coaches that facilitate us to do that but mentally as well. I’ve only started to realise last year, it’s literally 99pc up here [taps his head]. Without your head, your body is just completely useless.
“It’s quite obvious, but in terms of rugby and a performance aspect, I find mentally is so important. Visualising plays or getting your mind in the right mindset for a game or a training session is huge.
“You can go into a training session and, as Paul O’Connell says, you can go to train, or you can just take part. Taking part is just going in without an objective, going through the motions.
“Seán O’Brien, I really enjoy working with him. He’s phenomenal. I’m working with him on my tackle, my carrying. A load of us are doing it before sessions. During the session, scanning and communication are big.
“The last couple of nights, I’ve been visualising myself scanning in the defensive line. That’ll be my aim for the next day. Like in training yesterday, I’m getting in the defensive line and, in my head, I need to scan.
“I’m looking and I’m always scanning because Stuart always shows us this video of Frank Lampard when he played for Chelsea. He’s in the middle of the pitch, head on a swivel, like an owl, and it takes a million pictures and then he gets the ball, gives this perfect pass.
“So Stu would say, like, the more pictures you can take... Tadhg Furlong is incredible at it – the best at it in Leinster. That allows you to make an informed decision instead of just running off the line recklessly or in attack. That’d be a big focus. It’s nearly the same focus on every training session for me: can I just keep putting that into practice?
“Physically, it’s getting myself primed for the contact. I found that towards the end of last season, it needs to be in the forefront of my mind for me to execute. So, I’m looking forward to testing that out.”
He’s achieved a lot, but he’s also suffered some disappointment along the way. Last season, Baird missed out on selection for the Champions Cup final and didn’t make the 23 for the New Zealand Tests.
As well as physical aggression, he wants to be more consistent next season.
“I always thought the word consistency was a weak word,” he says. “I never really understood, but the greatest players are consistently on top of their game. They might drop down to 80pc, but that’s their baseline. They always play at eight out of 10. And then for the big games, they’ll pick up to nine or 10.
“The consistency of the way you play and then consistency of your preparation, your training, that’s what gets you selected.
“Johnny [Sexton] consistently delivers, Tadhg Furlong too. And I haven’t consistently delivered over the last two years. That’s the bit that kind of annoys me, that I haven’t been able to deliver consistency. So, this year, why I’m putting some focus on the mental aspect is consistently to get my mind in the right space to play and then consistently deliver.
“I feel if I consistently deliver, I’ll put myself in the best position to get selected. Ideally, I’d like this to be a really big season for me.
“We lost last year in the final. I didn’t play in it. That really pissed me off, but I moved on. There’s nothing I can do about it. I know what I need to work on and it’s what I’m trying to work for.
“And it is that, consistently delivering that physical violence.
“I can do the skills, bits of running, that’s just what I do normally. It’s the delivering that... it’s aggression and violence and hitting rocks and smashing that and enjoying that side.
“Enjoying that side, I knew exactly what I needed.”