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'Whatever happens, deal with it, move on and hopefully you get your opportunity later on'

Rhys Ruddock is pushing hard for a starting berth against South Africa but knows he’ll need to displace a trio of Lions.

IT SAYS A lot about the form of Rhys Ruddock, and the manner in which he has muscled his way into contention, that this conversation is even taking place. He is, without doubt, the in-form flanker in Joe Schmidt’s November squad.

Rhys Ruddock Ruddock has been in superb form for Leinster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

So, on that basis alone Ruddock, who captained Ireland in all three summer Test victories in America and Japan, will be named to start against the Springboks next week but that’s before you consider the calibre of player he’s vying with.

Ruddock is one of four back rowers from Leinster’s frighteningly deep resource pool in contention, while Lions CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony are joined by Munster team-mate Tommy O’Donnell.

But none come into this season-ending three-game series in the same rich vein of form as Ruddock does, nor have any of the others got through as many minutes as the 26-year-old has this season. He has featured in seven of Leinster’s nine games this term, and before sitting out last week’s win at Ulster, had started four on the bounce.

“It’s a rarity for me to be at the start of a season, injury-free and playing week on week” he says.

“I’m happy that I’ve done to work to enable me to be injury-free but also a bit of luck as well, there is a lot of competition and others have picked up injuries which allowed me to get a run of games. So it’s pleasing to get that run.”

Staying injury free has been key.

Last season, the fierce back row competition at Leinster as well as a couple of frustrating injury setbacks meant Ruddock was in and out of the province’s starting XV at various stages of the campaign. With 13 international caps to his name, the 26-year-old’s international career was stalling.

But captaincy, as he admits, has changed him to a certain degree.

“Yeah, it probably did in some ways,” he continues. “Maybe you don’t realise it a huge amount at the time. It definitely had some effect. Any sort of experience like that where you are given a responsibility and things go pretty well, it’s a positive and enjoyable experience, it definitely has an effect.

“It was a positive experience and an enjoyable one. I learned a lot and it helped me to grow as a player and a leader as well. I can’t put my finger on it , exactly how, but definitely it was a very powerful experience and it will stand to me.”

Rhys Ruddock and Michael Leitch He captained Ireland in all three summer Tests. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Overall, it was a fruitful summer for Ruddock and he returned to pre-season with Leinster battle-hardened and primed for the start of the new campaign.

“I loved it. It was an amazing experience. It was a huge honour and privilege. And a lot of the guys were people I played U20s with, or would have captained, or were from the previous year, so I had a lot of experience of playing with them back then and then in patches through Leinster and international windows. So to be playing with them and seeing them perform, and get into this squad now based on what they did in the summer, is very pleasing.

“It definitely benefits you as a player if you’ve been around this playing group and staff for a long time. I found that having the exposure to this level of international training, the longer you do it the more confidence you have of performing at this level. A lot of the guys have been here under Joe for a long time and that gives the group confidence and you can rely on that experience.”

And, although he has just 16 caps to his name, Ruddock has been around the set-up for a long time. It’s now seven years since his made his Test debut, the then 19-year-old plucked from U20 duty by Declan Kidney and thrown into Ireland’s summer tour of Australia.

Opportunities since then have been limited for a variety of reasons — he had to wait four years for his second cap — but his finest performance in a green jersey was arguably against next week’s opponents back in November 2014, when Ruddock was a late inclusion for Chris Henry who had taken ill.

“I remember it well,” he says, looking back on that day at the Aviva on the occasion of his first start.

“To be honest a lot of it is a bit of a blur and stuff. I remember scoring a try. That was my first international try. I just remember that being a very special feeling. I remember the intensity and physicality of the game. I was playing ‘7’ that day and I don’t think I’d ever played a game at that space. I think that might have had a little bit to do with playing ‘7’ as well, and the difference in the role.”

“I just remember it being up here in terms of the level of physicality and intensity, but at the time it was probably my most enjoyable experience in the pitch at the time as well.”

And how he’d love to get that chance again next Saturday, although Ruddock is fully aware that displacing the Lions trio of O’Mahony, O’Brien and Stander will be a tough task. He has advanced his cause no-end, so at the very least a place in Schmidt’s matchday 23 is what he’s pushing for.

“Ideally that would be what everyone is aiming for, but as I said earlier about selection, you can’t directly control it but what you can you control is that no matter what decisions are made, how you conduct yourself thereafter.

Rhys Ruddock Ruddock at the Guinness Storehouse earlier in the week. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Yea, do what ever you can up until that point, whatever decisions are made, show that you are there to be part of the team and to help the team prepare whatever your involvement is, and then I think that stands to you in the future.

“It’s always been the case so that’s why I would be keen on not setting targets based on getting into teams. It’s out of your control. So I set targets based on doing the work to be injury-free and as fit as I can be. Then every opportunity after that is to train well and play well and put up your hands that way. Selection is out of my hands. Do the work to get there. I will wait and see what will happen. There is a lot of competition. And although I’m happy with how I’m playing, I am under no illusions as to how difficult it is going to be to break into what will be a really strong competitive team.

“You’ll always have that disappointment but having been in that position before I’ve learned that the best way to deal with it for the team, but also for yourself, is not to dwell on it too long because you take longer to bounce back and you also don’t perform well in training. Whatever happens, deal with it, dust yourself off and move on, and hopefully you get your opportunity later on.”

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