Ruddock: South Africa trip perfect preparation for Champions Cup date with Tigers

The province take on the Sharks and the Stormers in South Africa before heading to Welford Road.

Image: Ben Brady/INPHO

LEINSTER’S TRIP TO South Africa for a brace of United Rugby Championship fixtures comes at an interesting time in the province’s season.

Leo Cullen’s side are in Durban to take on the Cell C Sharks today, and will move on to Cape Town next week for a clash with the DHL Stormers.

The locals who head along to watch last year’s Pro14 champions will find an experimental looking team take to the pitch, with the bulk of Leinster’s international contingent left at home to prepare for a massive Heineken Champions Cup date away to Leicester Tigers on 7 May.

Those in South Africa could fear they are already out of the picture for that trip to Welford Road, but Rhys Ruddock – who captains the province for the two-game tour – says those involved have to treat the games as major opportunity to impress.

“I think you can look at it in two ways,” Ruddock says.

“There is a great opportunity when we are out here to get closer to each other and spending time in each other’s company. That’s a huge part of a successful team, how close you are and how tight you are together as a team.

We have to make sure we take that opportunity first and foremost and then make sure we prepare in the right way to get performances on the road. And we’re away from home for two weeks in a row against real quality opposition, so there will be lessons we can hopefully learn for the Leicester game because there are similarities in the challenges that we will face.

“So there are pros and cons but for us as players, it is not really about focusing on that too much, it is about focusing on this weekend. It is going to be incredibly difficult to win both games over here. That has to be our goal. And we will leave it to the coaches in terms of who plays and who doesn’t play down the line, and where they go from here.”

Leinster’s decision to leave most of their big guns at home seems sensible given their schedule and comfortable position in the URC table, the province eight points clear at the top of the pile.

rhys-ruddock-is-tackled-by-mick-kearney Ruddock Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

However, this week’s announcement that the URC final will be played in the home venue of the top-ranked side will have sharpened Leinster’s focus ahead of their final three regular-season league games. Leinster look well set to finish out the regular season in first place, but now is not the time to be dropping points. 

Unlike the majority of Leinster’s touring party, Ruddock knows what it takes to win in South Africa. The back row was part of the Leinster team that beat the Southern Kings 31-10 at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in September 2017, before losing 38-19 at the Toyota Cheetahs a week later. 

“It was really really tough,’ he remembers. “And one of the lessons from playing those teams seemed to be that playing them home and away was a completely different experience. We managed to beat them quite considerably at home [Leinster beat the Kings 64-7 at the RDS later that season] and away from home it was a really really tough game.

“We obviously lost to the Cheetahs as well. So really really tough fixtures and that was a lesson for us as well.

Even in terms of how we might use the time together over the next couple of weeks. Trying to build those connections and spending time together, knowing when we can relax and enjoy each other’s company, and also spending the time wisely in terms of the rugby stuff, building that cohesion off the field and having the conversations that need to be had, getting across the details for the week because this week especially is a short week.

“So it was definitely a lesson the last time, how you don’t get drawn into the distractions of being away from home and having your routine on the road for a long period of time. It was definitely a great experience and definitely there are lessons we will look back to in terms of playing away from home and that Cheetahs game especially. Making sure we are in the right frame of mind.”

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Still, it will be hard to not allow minds wander ahead to that massive Champions Cup meeting with Leicester Tigers.

“They seem to be a team that have really clicked and are performing really well week-in, week-out,” Ruddock says of Leicester.

“Obviously going to Welford Road is a challenge at any time, but the way they are playing at the moment, they just kind of know how to win, they look really formidable and it will be a massive challenge to go over there and get a win, but one that everyone is really excited about.

“We kind of knew that if were to win the games against Connacht and get through that it was a likely fixture we would face down the line, so we’ve been able to have eyes on them for the last couple of weeks and keep in touch with what they’ve been doing and be ready for the challenge, the way they play and things like that.

“There are definitely aspects of this (trip) that will help us with that. They’ve an unbelievably strong set-piece, scrum dominance, maul, their kicking game and things like that. We’ll have to focus on what is in front of us here but I definitely think there will be lessons that we can take from these next couple of weeks which will lead into the big one then.”

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Ciarán Kennedy

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