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Schmidt must make in-form Ruddock pivotal part of back-row

Flying high: Rhys Ruddock has been in impressive form
Flying high: Rhys Ruddock has been in impressive form

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

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 has only 25 caps.

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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 rejig of the back-row 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.

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Joe Schmidt has some choices to make in the next 10 days. Does he jettison his vice-captain or make room for him elsewhere?

Forwards coach Simon Easterby said yesterday: "Rhys was brilliant against Russia. He's a physical man, he's well built.

"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 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.

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

Having started all three games to date, Schmidt may be tempted to stand down O'Mahony 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.

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

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, and can't be ignored if Ireland are to back up their positive talk and make a mark in the next few weeks.

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