Joe Schmidt decided Rhys Ruddock was the obvious man to be promoted from the ranks earlier this summer when the Lions expedition relieved him of his usual on-field generals for the tour to the USA and Japan.
At 26, the Leinster back row is entering the prime years of his career and he had already played the role of skipper with both his province and Allan Clarke’s Emerging Ireland side. He was the obvious candidate. “I was just hoping to get picked on the panel to go,” he explained ahead of the new season. “I knew there was heavy competition in the back row so I was hoping I had done enough with my performances to get on the plane.
“I was aware I was a more senior squad member when it was announced and that there was a possibility of being one of the leadership figures. I was keen on making sure that I used my leadership experience with the group but I wasn’t really thinking of the actual captaincy.
“When it came I was excited and delighted to get the opportunity.” Schmidt had labelled Ruddock as the “ideal” guy for the job before the trip and he didn’t let his coach down. One of just seven players to start all three Tests, his form was excellent and his leadership skills sounded the right notes.
“If anything it gave me a new outlook on the broader aspect. Like focusing on the team a little bit more than just yourself and how you prepare. I’ll definitely look to take some of those skills back to playing with Leinster and make sure that I continue to improve that side of it.
“Anyone in that position would enjoy it, just the privilege and the honour that it is. The actual day-to-day doing of it I enjoyed anyway. I didn’t really have to do much differently. As I said, I was just thinking in a broader sense as opposed to narrowing the focus on myself.”
He isn’t totally averse to putting the ‘I’ before the team. When asked about Scott Fardy, Leinster’s new signing who made a name for himself in the Wallabies back row, his first instinct was to remark with light-hearted satisfaction that he had been signed to play as a lock. Ruddock looking out for number one is hardly surprising given his situation is something of a curiosity:
Schmidt’s skipper for the trip to the USA and Japan, he’ll be doing well simply to make Leinster’s team for the bigger PRO14 and European affairs. The province’s wealth of talent in the department is nothing new. Leinster enter Leo Cullen’s third season in charge with 12 of their senior squad capable of taking a shift there - Fardy included - and nine of them are internationals. Still, hyper-competitive environments aren’t new to him.
Two years of his schooling were spent at Millfield where internationals and Olympians are ten a penny. His old coach and ex-England player John Mallett remarked a few years back that getting game time for all his talented U18s was as much a challenge as winning their age grade.
One of Ruddock’s classmates at the famous Somerset institution was none other than Mako Vunipola who, along with brother Billy and Toby Faletau, had been part of an East Wales U11 side that he faced with West Wales.
Ruddock’s chief memory of that day was a Billy Vunipola tackle that left him winded for 10 minutes, and injuries have played a frustrating role in hamstringing a player who has rarely let club or country down when fitness allowed.
His Ireland debut is seven years in the rear view mirror now but he has only played 15 times since. His Six Nations experience amounts to a combined 72 minutes off the bench, all in 2016, and he has played 10 minutes total in Rugby World Cups.
Still, he’ll bring added status to the audition process now. “I would always be desperate to get in it any time there is a squad announcement. I would be hugely disappointed if I don’t and really excited if I do. I wouldn’t say (the captaincy) changed me but maybe it will give me a bit of confidence to kick on.”
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