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Ruddock's form earns Ireland's call but immediate focus is on Pro12 semi-final

The 26-year-old is back in Joe Schmidt’s squad and hopes to impress against Scarlets tonight.

IT’S NOT LONG since Rhys Ruddock could have been forgiven for wondering if his future was outside Leinster.

With the back row competition as fierce as ever, the 26-year-old was in and out of the province’s starting XV – injuries didn’t help in the slightest – and despite having 13 Test caps to his name, his Ireland career was stalling as a result.

Rhys Ruddock Ruddock was superb against Clermont in the Champions Cup semi-final. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

But recent months have seen Ruddock re-emerge as the leader he knew he was, with his impressive form ensuring that he simply had to be in Leinster’s team for tonight’s Guinness Pro12 semi-final against the Scarlets at the RDS [KO 7.45pm, TG4/Sky Sports].

Ruddock was perhaps the most impressive Leinster player on the pitch in their Champions Cup semi-final defeat to Clermont and his excellent form has also earned him a recall for Ireland.

Indeed, the robust blindside flanker is among the contenders to captain Ireland in the US and Japan next month, with Rory Best and Peter O’Mahony on Lions duty and regular vice-captain Jamie Heaslip injured.

Ruddock’s most recent caps for Ireland were on the South Africa tour last summer, when he played in all three games and scored a try in the second Test.

Naturally, he is excited to get back onto the pitch for Joe Schmidt’s side, but first and foremost the mature back row understands that stepping up for Leinster tonight against the Scarlets will aid his cause.

“I was delighted to get in the squad,” said Ruddock yesterday. “I haven’t had any international involvement this year so I’m just really enjoying my rugby and being part of
this Leinster squad.

“Being able to play in big games is the best time to be around. I was prefer this to having the injuries at the start. I’m looking forward to what’s to come, first here and then hopefully on the tour as well.”

Ruddock will be part of an intriguing battle around the breakdown this evening, with the Scarlets’ James Davies always a major turnover threat.

James Davies James Davies will be a pest at the breakdown for Leinster. Source: CameraSport/Kevin Barnes/INPHO

Leinster have left their own turnover leader, Dan Leavy, on the bench alongside Sean O’Brien as part of a 6/2 split, with Josh van der Flier wearing the seven shirt and Jack Conan completing the back row.

“All the time you’re looking for balance in the game and the opposition you’re going to play,” said head coach Leo Cullen of the back row selection. “The form of guys, physically how they are, the stage of the season, what’s going on in the rest of their lives.

“You are making those calls and assessments all the time. Josh has been a very steady performer for us, the same as the rest of those back row guys. Dan has come in and done incredibly well and it’s great to have that luxury.

“But we’ve got a strong group that will start and we want to have a strong group to finish as well, with the impact that those guys coming off the bench have, Dan and Sean.”

Another major threat to Leinster’s possession is Tadhg Beirne, who came through the province’s academy but was severely hampered by injuries and joined the Welsh region last summer.

The Kildare man has been one of the best players in the Pro12 this season and as well as his regular locking duties, possesses superb hands and a fine eye for turnover chances.

“He is a good competitor, most importantly,” said Cullen. “He was unfortunate coming through, he picked a number of injuries along the way and he didn’t get a good run at it and it is very difficult for a lot of young players when they are in that cycle of injuries.

“He needed to just go somewhere where he was going to get a consistent run of games and as we have all seen he has got stronger and stronger as the season goes on. Tadgh is a good athlete but most importantly he is competitive.

Tadhg Beirne Beirne has been outstanding for the Scarlets. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Our players need to make sure they are on guard – they know Tadgh well – and to have full respect for what he will be able to potentially deliver.”

The weather forecast for this evening doesn’t favour the Scarlets – their game is mainly built around slick handling, pace, brilliance on turnover ball and impressive set-piece strike plays – although Leinster would have preferred a dry night too.

The Irish side’s tight five – minus Devin Toner – may be the difference as they turn the screw at scrum and maul time, but if the weather allows it we should witness an enjoyably attacking-minded semi-final.

In truth, Leinster’s 11-point favouritism is well-earned and their home advantage should be a telling one. While several of this group have yet to win a trophy with Leinster, they will believe they are better built for play-off rugby than the Scarlets.

“The fact that I am involved is just a real excitement, to go out there and play,” said Ruddock. “We have been here before and we know about a big game like this; hopefully we have taken learnings from them.”

Leinster:

15. Joey Carbery
14. Adam Byrne
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Isa Nacewa (captain)
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Luke McGrath

1. Jack McGrath
2. James Tracy
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Ross Molony
5. Hayden Triggs
6. Rhys Ruddock
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Jack Conan

Replacements:

16. Richardt Strauss
17. Cian Healy
18. Michael Bent
19. Devin Toner
20. Dan Leavy
21. Sean O’Brien
22. Jamison Gibson-Park
23. Zane Kirchner

Scarlets:

15. Johnny McNicholl
14. Liam Williams
13. Jonathan Davies
12. Scott Williams
11. Steff Evans
10. Rhys Patchell
9. Gareth Davies

1. Rob Evans
2. Ryan Elias
3. Samson Lee
4. Lewis Rawlins
5. Tadhg Beirne
6. Aaron Shingler
7. James Davies
8. John Barclay (captain)

Replacements:

16. Emyr Phillips
17. Wyn Jones
18. Werner Kruger
19. David Bulbring
20. Will Boyde
21. Jonathan Evans
22. Hadleigh Parkes
23. DTH Van Der Merwe

Referee: Marius Mitrea [FIR].

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