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02nd Aug 2023

The most fascinating player in Ireland’s World Cup training squad also has the highest ceiling

Patrick McCarry

Ryan Baird

“There’s probably someone in the building here who is better than you at pretty much everything.”

For the whole time Ryan Baird is talking with us, he shivers away, tries to rub some life back into his limbs and muses on all subjects from fishing, defensive lines, tennis and swapping the life of a rugby pro for one of an anonymous fan.

The 24-year-old is on track to make Ireland’s World Cup squad but he has the potential, yet, to be a starter in France. He is the most fascinating player in Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad, and also the guy with the most potential.

We catch up with Baird, a semi-circle of four journalists, and get to pick at Baird’s brain as his mind and body recover from a 10-minute ice bath plunge. “We’ve kind of been doing it on the non-training days, we’ve been doing ice baths,” he explains. “The coaches told us to do it so we do what we’re told.”

His normal choices for recovery, after training sessions and matches are eating well, sleeping well and then hydrating – “If I can do those three then anything after that is considered a bonus in my eyes” – while he gets outdoors by playing golf (8 handicap) and fishing.

The Leinster forward recalled being brought fishing by his father for his 12th birthday, down at Kilmore Quay in Wexford. Catching mackerel, pollock and cod was secondary to the whole experience of that trip with his father. It was not a frequent past-time in his teenage years but he took it up again, a couple of years back, and has been out a few times since.

“I do love fishing,” he tells us. “We were playing golf in Carton [House] and the river that flows through there, you can see fish in underneath and I was thinking I’d love to get a rod out and try catch some.

“But it’s very therapeutic, fishing, because you’re out there and you don’t know when you’re going to get a hit, and you might not get a hit, so it teaches you a great level of discipline and patience. Then if it’s a good day it’s calm, still, you can hear the birds around you and just chill out. It’s very nice. A lot of the time I’d just go by myself. It’s very relaxing. I feel very present when I’m there.”

Ryan BairdRyan Baird during an Ireland rugby media conference in the IRFU High Performance Centre at the Sport Ireland Campus. (Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile)

Ryan Baird on “incredible” Paul O’Connell

Back in the 2020/21 season, a few months after a Ryan Baird hat-trick against Glasgow that got him on a lot of rugby radars, I had the pleasure of speaking to Paul O’Connell.

“A staggered introduction [to Test rugby] for him isn’t a bad thing,” O’Connell told me.

“There is no doubting his playing ability, there is no doubting he is a future Irish second row long-term but as you get older, it isn’t just weights, you just become bigger, you become more solid. I think that will be good for him in the Test arena when the time comes.”

Two years on, I asked Baird how tough it was to keep the weight on while maintaining the athleticism that marks him apart from so many other locks and flankers.

“What I say to that is I don’t mind what weight I am as long as I can do what I do on the pitch. As long as I feel I can accelerate hard, run fast, step fast, jump high and all that, then I don’t really mind what weight I am. I’m just trying to always put on weight, I’m slowly creeping up.

“I’m someone who the weight would easily fall off me if I wasn’t eating consistently. Some people are very different but that’s just how I am unfortunately.”

On what it is like to work with O’Connell, the Ireland forwards coach, Baird exclaims, “Ah I love it. The first day he came in I was just blowing out, it was incredible. His attention to detail, his passion for it, it’s just incredible. I love it so much.”

“I pick his brain about anything and he’ll have a video of it somewhere on his laptop. It’s impressive looking at all the folders he has. I love working with him.”

“He is [good craic], yeah,” says Baird. “Him and Fogs [Denis Fogarty, scrum coach] are stitched side-to-side, they’re always going around together and they’re a great duo. It’s good.”

When we revisit O’Connell, the former Munster, Ireland and Lions man that captained from the second row and wrung so out of his career, Baird says it was not the Limerick man he looked up to as a sporting hero. It was not the likes of Ronan O’Gara, Rob Kearney, Rory Best or any past legends.

“I wouldn’t have really looked up to anybody in rugby,” he tells us. “It was more tennis. Rafa Nadal was my idol when I was growing up. I enjoyed watching and playing rugby but it would have been Nadal who I idolised.”

Ryan BairdIreland captain Jonathan Sexton holds the Centenary Quaich alongside teammates, from left, Ryan Baird, Josh van der Flier and James Ryan, at Murrayfield Stadium in Edinburgh. (Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile)

Ryan Baird and that high, high ceiling

As we talk with Ryan Baird, at the IRFU High Performance Centre, Caelan Doris sits over at the next media huddle. The Leinster back row followed in the path laid out, the previous season, by Josh van der Flier in winning the Players’ Player of the Year award.

I asked Baird about Doris and van der Flier, and how Josh spoke about looking around at all his Leinster and Ireland pack-mates and trying to add the best bits from their games. To me, he has the highest ceiling – the biggest potential – in the entire Ireland squad. Josh and Caelan are surely not a bad template, I ask.

“Yeah, we were actually just talking about it yesterday and then we sat down and were chatting about what we’re all looking at individually.

“You can learn so much by just watching them on the laptops, seeing how they do something. If I’m struggling to get square in a defensive line, for example, I’ll watch someone who’s really good at it and pick their brain and they’ll say ‘Oh, what I do is set-up this way and then I look this way’

“There’s probably someone in the building here who is better than you at pretty much everything, you’ll have your one or two super strengths, you don’t want too many of those, and then you see someone else’s and you pick on them and pick on someone else. That’s when you get the best results, when everyone is sharing and it’s collaborative, because everyone has their point of difference and you’re trying to learn from each and every person.”

We touch on Leinster’s pre-season [same province, different realms], friendship with Scott Penny, family from Co. Clare and some Rugby Championship before one of my colleagues returns to the topic of Nadal. What was it about the Spaniard – the King of Clay – that he so idolised?

“Our family grew up playing tennis so it was just his fight, his competitiveness, his passion. I loved him,” he says.

“I was alright. My brothers were better, I probably didn’t ever really put enough time into it to be good. They weren’t too bad.”

Then, shivering still but assuring us he is fine to continue chatting, he tells us about heading to Wimbledon with his mates as a regular Joe Soap tennis fan.

“It was brilliant,” he recalls. “It was funny, we arrived in at 5pm or something, just queued up, got a ticket for £18, it was incredible.

“Everyone had already kind of queued up and gone in so we got in for £18 and stumbled upon Court 17 and saw this player, Jan Choinski. He was a set down, 1-0 down, and me and my two mates were like ‘Right, we’re gonna get behind Jan.’

“We looked him up, he was 164th in the world at the time, he’d never won an ATP match, he’d never won a grand slam match or a Davis Cup match, so he was not expected to win this match. He was playing against the 56h-ranked player in the world.

“So we got behind him, we were bringing huge energy, shouting and screaming at him, giving him ‘Come on Jan!’ and all that throughout the game. It was incredible fun.

“So he wins in five sets and the atmosphere was just incredible. Afterwards he was saying, ‘The crowd were incredible, it was electric’ and we got a photo with him. It was a real memory for us. We were texting him on Instagram after saying ‘Awesome work, so delighted for you!’ and he was like ‘Thanks, roll on the next round!’

“It was a really cool day.”

With that reminiscence, we get the ‘wrap it up’ signal and Ryan Baird is a free man. He thanks us, then bounds away, rubbing both arms. Still trying to get warm.

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