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Wednesday 16 October 2019

Rhys hits top form

Ruddock could be the solution to Ireland's back-row problem

Rhys Ruddock on the charge against Russia during the Rugby World Cup Pool match in Kobe
Rhys Ruddock on the charge against Russia during the Rugby World Cup Pool match in Kobe

Considering how hard Leinster and the IRFU worked to convince him to switch his allegiances from Wales when he was just 17, it seems remarkable that Rhys Ruddock only has 25 caps.

He was good enough to be capped by Declan Kidney almost a decade ago when he was 19, one of only four teenagers to have represented Ireland in the professional era.

He is a Leinster stalwart, the provincial vice-captain and one of the first names on the team-sheet for Leo Cullen, but for a myriad of reasons he has not fulfilled what once seemed like his international destiny.

Until now. If Ireland recover their form and go on to do something special in Japan, they will need to recognise form and right now there is no one with more momentum in their performances than their blindside.

A leadership figure who has stepped in to the captaincy when the big guns are away, Ruddock looks primed to force a re-jig of the back-row in some shape or form in the coming days and weeks.

Put simply, he looks to be one of the forwards with the most energy about him right now.

While Peter O'Mahony rages against the refereeing machine and concedes a succession of penalties, Ruddock is dominating collisions and driving forward. Joe Schmidt has some choices to make in the next 10 days. Does he jettison his vice captain or make room for him elsewhere?

"Rhys was brilliant against Russia," forwards coach Simon Easterby said yesterday.

"He's a physical man. He suffered a bit during the pre-season with a few niggles and didn't always get through as much work as we would have liked but I was delighted for him on Thursday that he got an opportunity to get the run that he did and he certainly didn't let anyone down.

"If anything, he stood up really well and he was leading the charge a lot of the time and you couldn't meet a better guy for the team.

"I think everyone was delighted with his performance and that adds to that conundrum and competition that we've got in the back-row which is exactly what we want."

That conundrum is complicated by Jordi Murphy's injury.

Having started all three games to date, Schmidt may be tempted to stand O'Mahony down and put him on the bench.

That would give him a back-row of Ruddock, Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander. Alternatively, he could select O'Mahony at openside and look for van der Flier's impact off the bench. Stander has also played a lot of rugby in Japan, but it seems unlikely they'd go into a must-win game against Samoa without him.

O'Mahony did some things well against Russia, but he is conceding too many penalties and his carrying game has dissolved in recent times.

His numbers are rarely impressive, but he and his coach would argue that his leadership and lineout influence can't be tracked by the statistics, but he did manage 18m from five carries in Kobe as Ruddock put together 48m across 11 runs.

Perhaps the Leinster man's role offered the Munster skipper some freedom to play his game, but there can be no doubting which player is showing more form right now.

"For him, his progress has been stagnated a bit or interrupted through those little niggles, he's has some major injuries as well but also works incredibly hard to get his body in the right shape," Easterby said.

"We're very fortunate that he's come into this tournament and shown a real quality on Thursday and that only pushes other guys to step up.

"Rhys has done himself a lot of good with that performance and it got the team on the front foot and he is capable of doing that. There's no doubt that he is certainly in the mix, but in terms what he offered to the team and the wider group, he's such a good man that you'd be happy to go to war with him."

A former blindside himself, Easterby will appreciate what both men bring to the table.

Indeed, the quarter-final selection will be influenced by Ireland's opponents.

Energiser-bunny van der Flier is a horse for the All Black course, Ruddock and O'Mahony are the dogs of war for South Africa.

Jack Conan was the player most people were expecting to force his way into the equation, but his foot injury cost him that chance.

Without Conan and the powerful options of Dan Leavy and Seán O'Brien, Schmidt's Nos 6, 7 and 8 have looked under-powered and have struggled to get to grips with games.

Curse

Stander's directness can be a blessing and a curse; he was at once brilliant and braindead when he ran over a Russian defender on Thursday; ignoring the support runners on either shoulder who had a clear run to the line.

When contact presents itself, the Munster stalwart can't resist.

Ireland could do with more subtlety, but they can't afford to lose the South African's power.

Getting that blend right may be the key to producing something at this World Cup.

Right now, Ruddock is in form and firing.

He is offering much-needed energy to the team, winning collisions and getting them on the front-foot.

That has been an all-too-rare commodity in Japan, it can't be ignored if Ireland are to back up their positive talk and make some sort of mark in the next couple of weeks.

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