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13th Nov 2017

Rhys Ruddock to face Fiji and may prove hard to shift from Ireland’s back row

Finally getting his reward

Patrick McCarry

Back in November 2014, Rhys Ruddock was sharing a hotel room with Ireland teammate Chris Henry when the Ulster forward suffered a mini stroke.

It was a frantic and deeply upsetting scene as Henry received emergency medical attention.

Doctors later diagnosed that the flanker had suffered a brain blood vessel blockage that caused his heart problems. Luckily, surgery addressed the issue and Henry has been back playing for almost two years. He got married earlier this year and is as hale and healthy as a professional rugby player can possibly be [banged up but still banging].

Back on that fateful day, three years ago, Ruddock informed that he would be starting as openside for Ireland against the Springboks at the Aviva Stadium. Last Tuesday, at Carton House, he downplayed the momentousness of the occasion by insisting that, as a sub, he was already priming himself to play.

Still, Joe Schmidt did bring him to one side for a chat before and after making the call. He placed his faith in Ruddock the player and Ruddock the man; his mental strength.

The young forward rewarded Schmidt by going out, scoring a try and delivering a man-of-the-match performance in an excellent Ireland win.

And still, we take him for granted.

When Rory Best, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Johnny Sexton were selected on the Lions Tour, and with Jamie Heaslip recovering from back surgery, Schmidt turned to Ruddock for Ireland’s summer tour. He led them superbly well and demanded more of those around him, and of himself, as Ireland comfortably took all three matches, in Japan and the USA.

Ruddock then returned to pre-season with Leinster and entered 2017/18 in top form, and determined to hold onto his place in the Ireland back row.

He did just that in Leinster blue – excelling in high stakes games against Munster, Montpellier and Glasgow – but Schmidt went with three Lions in his back row to face South Africa. Few were complaining, especially Ruddock, but it would have been no shock to see him start at blind- or openside.

As it was, an ear laceration for Peter O’Mahony saw him enter the fray against the Boks after 50 minutes. Ireland were 14-3 against a South African team resembling a rabble but they were pressing for a score that could have put them right back in the game when Ireland should have already been out of sight.

Ruddock’s first contribution was typical of the man and his impact. Switched on from the very first moment, he tracked across to the left flank and dipped in on the ruck as centre Jesse Kriel was brought to ground. Kriel tried to wrest himself free and both Andries Coetzee and Elton Jantjies attempted to shunt Ruddock away but they had no joy. Penalty Ireland and a rake of chest and back slaps for the new man on.

Ireland did not miss a beat with Ruddock now in-situ and he defended with force whenever South Africa got their act together.

His biggest impact arrived with 10 minutes on the clock as he took a pass from Kieran Marmion and bulled ahead. He stepped left to avoid Francois Mostert then carried Francois Louw over the tryline for the game-clinching try.

It was another example of the sheer power and determination that Ruddock carries with him onto the pitch.

Schmidt should start him against Fiji at the weekend and the decision will have to be made on whether he dons jersey No.6 or No.7. One thing for sure is, once Ruddock gets into the starting Ireland back row, there may be no shifting him for the remainder of the season.

Whenever Ireland call upon him, Ruddock answers emphatically.

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