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Dublin: 12°C Tuesday 18 May 2021

Mentor and apprentice: Ringrose relishing battle with former team-mate Te'o

The 23-year-old will be the centre of attention at Twickenham later as he hopes to help Ireland to a third ever Grand Slam success.

THERE’S A BRILLIANT photo of then Leinster team-mates Ben Te’o and Garry Ringrose doubling up to tackle Connacht’s Bundee Aki during the 2016 Pro12 final at Murrayfield; mentor and apprentice in midfield looking to stop the opposition’s danger man.

The Te’o-Ringrose combination had been Leinster’s first choice centre partnership for much of that season, but the Auckland native’s decision to leave for Worcester Warriors means they will come up against each other in the Test arena this afternoon.

It’s funny how things change.

Connacht’s Bundee Aki is tackled by Leinster’s Ben Te'o and Garry Ringrose Aki, Ringrose and Te'o in action during the 2016 Pro12 final. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Leinster’s defeat to the western province on that May day proved to be Te’o's last appearance in blue — or white on that occasion — as he moved to England the following season, with his decision ending any possibility of him qualifying for Ireland.

Had things worked out differently, the pair may very well have been in the same dressing room at Twickenham later but, rugby being a professional game, careers often veer down different paths.

After a conversation with Eddie Jones, Te’o chose England, forcing Leinster to look towards their young wunderkind and Robbie Henshaw as their long-term midfield pairing.

With Henshaw sidelined with a season-ending shoulder injury, three of the protagonists from that Pro12 final two years ago will be reacquainted again this afternoon, but in completely different roles.

Ringrose and Aki are now Ireland’s first-choice midfield combination with Joe Schmidt’s stocks in that department stretched during this championship, while Te’o has been recalled to England’s midfield after Jones wielded the axe with seven changes.

It means there is a fascinating match-up in store with the prospect of the direct and powerful pairing of Te’o and Jonathan Joseph providing an entirely different proposition for Ringrose and Aki to the one Scotland offered at the Aviva Stadium last weekend.

“I haven’t actually played against Ben, I’m more used to playing alongside him so that will be an interesting challenge,” Ringrose says.

“It was my first year coming in from the academy and playing alongside him so there was a couple of times when he’d get the ball and do a lot of the work and then I’d try and trail him up and if I could get an offload or something.

“He’s an incredibly strong carrier which is no secret but he does also have that ability to take the line on and then get an offload and create space for others. So it will certainly be tough for myself and Bundee coming against him, because he’s grown, probably a lot, since I played alongside him.

“He’s got even better, so it will be a tough old day I’d say.”

While Leinster supporters may not have seen the best of Te’o during his two seasons at the province, there were certainly glimpses of his quality as he made the transition from rugby league.

The 31-year-old left Dublin with the stat of most defenders beaten by any Leinster player during his two years there while his physicality, fast footwork and intelligent running lines made him an exciting player for Ringrose to learn off in his first year out of the academy.

Garry Ringrose Ringrose pictured at Carton House earlier in the week. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Yeah well I think how well he adapted, because it was pretty tough, I can imagine, going from league where his role would have been quite different to the role he would have had to play in the centre.

“So the fact that he was constantly working on his skills and trying to evolve his game, which then I was just really trying to bounce off and pick his head (brain) for any ideas I could get.

“He was pretty good when he was at Leinster but he has managed to improve again and keep getting better, and some of the stuff he does in England is incredibly effective so he’s not there by accident, it’s down to the work he puts in.

“So I would have learned a couple of things off him.”

While Te’o's career has moved on to another level since his spell with Leinster — the evidence of which is 14 international caps for England — the same can be said about Ringrose, who himself has been on a steep upward curve in terms of progress and performances.

Other than bulking up considerably since the Pro12 final against Connacht, the 23-year-old has developed his game further and last week’s outstanding display against Scotland, having played just six games during an injury-disrupted season, is testament to the world-class player he has become.

Schmidt on Thursday suggested we can expect to see more cohesion between Ringrose and Aki in the Ireland midfield at Twickenham, purely on the basis that the two players have had an extra week to work together and form a greater understanding.

“Playing alongside Bundee certainly made my job a bit easier,” Ringrose continues. “I’m not just saying that, a lot of the work he put in went unnoticed which meant there was quite a bit of space for me.

“Playing alongside him, like Robbie and Chris would have played alongside, and it was no different for them, thankfully it would have made my job a lot easier.

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“Myself and Bundee discussed defensive stuff from last week, and the same applies coming up against England, but certainly against Scotland they’ve pretty good individuals that are well capable of beating someone in a phone box.

“So if something like that happens we’ve got to back each other up and work hard for each other and if they make a break that the other gets back and tries to cover it, which Bundee certainly did for me a couple of times.”

That Ringrose was able to last the 80 minutes against Scotland, and produce the type of shift he did, is a measure of his talent and ability to adapt after such a long period on the sidelines with shoulder and ankle problems.

He explains: “Certainly after the game, when the final whistle went, I was pretty relieved and probably reflected for five or 10 minutes about the work that had gone in and it was worth it for the feeling of a moment like that after the game.

Garry Ringrose The centre made an impressive return to Test match rugby last week. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“It was tough [playing a full Test match] but you kind of just block it out when you’re playing in a game of that significance. You don’t really have a choice to feel sorry for yourself or get too bogged down about being tired, you just have to go try and win the next moment.

“There were times when I was blowing hard but kind of looking at the players around me, whether it was Johnny, Bundee or Earls, they pick you up and force you to keep going. Someone like Rob, who talks all through the back line, makes sure you stay on top so you don’t really have a choice to tap out and be too tired.

“Thankfully I trained for two weeks before under Joe and the rest of the team so I could take confidence from getting a lot of minutes training in a high intensity. I would have been doing a lot of conditioning work coming back from injury anyway so the S&C team with Leinster and Ireland don’t let you come back under cooked, you have to hit targets and hit markers and be able to fit in and not let the team-mate either side of you down.”

In that sense, Ringrose has been focused all week in an attempt to block out all the outside noise and concentrate on the task at hand come kick-off at 2.45pm this afternoon.

While admitting there were initial nerves when Schmidt’s squad reconvened at their Carton House base last Sunday as the enormity of the occasion became apparent, the former Blackrock College man says he has tried to ‘win each day in training’ in the build-up to the biggest game of his fledgling career.

Intelligent both on and off the field, Ringrose is never likely to get ahead of himself and is humility personified.

“I still live at home with my family so when I go back in, it’s not actually the main focus,” he remarks.

“When you’ve a younger brother and younger sister, there’s more than just talk of rugby at the dinner table.

“But, yeah, even listening to Johnny earlier in the week when you kind of forget these opportunities don’t come along very often. Towards the start of the week nerves and excitement but at the end of the day it comes back down to the work you do on Monday and not getting too distracted by what’s at stake or what potentially could be at stake.

“That was kind of the attitude, copy the example set by the leaders in the group in terms of focusing on training and trying to win each day.”

But the reality is that this is not just another game or occasion. The magnitude of it is not lost on Ringrose and this generation but at the same time their single-mindedness means there is no real danger of distractions over history, Grand Slams and talk of immortality.

“It will be exciting to play in Twickenham. It will be my first time, really looking forward to it. Hopefully, the noise of the crowd, our travelling support will try and match that.

Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose Ringrose and Aki during yesterday's captain's run at Twickenham. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“During the anthems, you are trying to narrow the focus, what’s going to be your first involvement and getting that right. That is what I do, think about that and go from there as opposed to get too distracted.

“It would be easy to sit back and take it all in but what makes any occasion most enjoyable is if you fit in and get your role right and get your performance as good as you can on the day.

“That is the attitude I try and take and not get too distracted from what’s going on. I know I will be able to look back on it and appreciate it more.”

So can you dare to dream?

“Certainly at the start of the week it’s a little bit of nerves, it’s Sunday evening kind of realising what’s at stake but then also the awareness that worrying about that isn’t going to be effective in your preparation.

“So it was certainly about narrowing the focus and winning each day and trying to train as hard as I could, get the body in the best shape I could to go out and perform and not really get too concerned about what’s at stake.

“Certainly with the quality we’re coming up against, we’d be foolish to start looking too far ahead.”

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