A proud Welshman having been born and raised in the Principality, Mike Ruddock also has strong ties with Ireland and admits he will be singing both national anthems when the two countries come face to face in the RBS Under 20 Six Nations in Llanelli on Friday evening.
Ruddock, an Irish passport holder with an Irish mother and wife, is in his first season as Ireland Under 20 coach and knows that victory is a must if his charges are to have any hope of retaining the title when England, the only unbeaten side after three rounds, cross the Irish Sea next weekend.
“I can’t wait [for the Welsh game], I’m looking forward to it,” Ruddock, whose sons Rhys and Ciarán both played for Ireland Under 20s, told Total Rugby Radio earlier this week. “We had a good preview on Wales, have looked at a few tapes and they are playing well in fairness to them.
“They have got a good brand of rugby, typically Welsh I guess would be my reaction to it, good passing, good width, good tempo and some physical forwards, put that together with a blitz defence and they are hard to break down.
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“We have got a couple of players returning back from Magners League action. When there has been a clash with Magners weekends we have had some players leaving us, so it will be good to get a few of those players back.
“We have still got one or two players out with injuries, but we will be welcoming back strength if you like and players we think hopefully can make a difference to us because we will have to play well to beat Wales.”
Ireland are one of three sides on four points – two behind leaders England – but have a far inferior point differential to their rivals so need to keep the scoreboard busy in Llanelli to boost their chances in a Championship Ruddock admits is finely poised.
“England I think have been the standout team so far, particularly with them beating France a couple of weeks ago. France looked pretty strong, particularly in the scrum, but England came through that test and are in pole position, bit like the senior team I guess at the moment.
“That is where the Championship sort of looks to be destined unless they sort of fall down, and of course Wales are playing well, they had a good win over Italy last time, we managed to have a good win up in Scotland.
“There is a little bit of pressure on Scotland and Italy, but for Wales, Ireland and England at the moment, they are all in the race with France really so it is very interesting and exciting.”
Ruddock is not alone in his desire to claim the U20 Six Nations crown – and add it to the senior Grand Slam he coached Wales to in 2005 – but he also knows that developing players for the future is something that is equally important, especially when it comes to squad depth for the IRB Junior World Championship in Italy this summer.
No making up the numbers
“Everyone wants to win, when you are live on TV on Friday night you want to win the game, the supporters want to win the game, the teams wants to win the game, so everyone is battling to try and be undefeated in the Championship or win as many games as they can.
“There is no team going out and saying well it doesn’t really matter if we don’t win this game, we are developing players. Everybody wants to win and that is how you build your reputation as a team and as players. That is the sort of message I am trying to get across to the players.
“Having said that, there are a unique set of circumstances here where, for example, against Italy we were able to start with all our Magners League players, against France then I think we had a few injuries and lost something like eight or nine players.
“Then you are, I wouldn’t say fire-fighting, but you are into the realm of developing the next tier of players and where that becomes quite useful is when you come to the World Cup, you are going to need a larger squad of players to go to a World Cup and perform.
“While you might have some difficulties in the short term with player availability because of the clash with the Magners League, over the longer term and building towards the World Cup it is actually quite a positive thing for us and hopefully it will help us by the time we get to the World Cup.”
Ruddock knows only too well the stepping stone that the Under 20s provides, having seen his son Rhys go from captaining Ireland to the Six Nations title and the IRB Junior World Championship, to being plucked out of the latter in Argentina to join the senior Ireland side in New Zealand as injury cover.
Rising to the challenge, Rhys played against the New Zealand Maori before coming off the bench to make his Test debut against Australia on 26 June and establish a milestone in Junior World Championship history by ensuring all 17 nations to have graced the tournament had capped a graduate at Test level.
Positive for Irish rugby
“I think what happened with Rhys was a really positive thing for Irish rugby because traditionally Australia or New Zealand have promoted these younger players and now suddenly Ireland was doing the same,” explained Ruddock.
“In fairness to Rhys he rose to the challenge and played really well against the New Zealand Maoris for the full 80 minutes at 19 years of age and it was a big test in the back row against some quality All Black players.
“He got through that and showed that a 19 year olds preparation these days in the Academy physically is very good and his rugby prowess and skill level was high from an Under 20s campaign. I think he showed a good message really of how well prepared these Under 20 players are.
"He is a very dedicated pro and is a very humble lad, I haven't actually seen his Irish international cap, I keep asking him to bring it round but he never does. I think the reason he hasn't showed off about that or jumped ahead of himself is he knows he had a bit of luck, there were players injured.
"He doesn't want to get ahead of himself either and I think that is a good attribute and a good message to send out to the younger players who do get some selections for senior caps not to be satisfied with that, to push on and try and get more."
For now though Ruddock senior's focus is on getting the right result at Parc y Scarlets against a Welsh side described by coach Darren Edwards as "pretty close to our strongest side".
He will, though, inevitably have one eye on the England-Scotland match in Newbury given the three rivals have been drawn in the same pool at the IRB Junior World Championship in Italy from 10-26 June.
"Game of our lives"
Scotland coach Peter Wright has urged his players to produce "the game of their lives" and do themselves justice against an England side two steps away from completing the coveted Grand Slam.
"It's no exaggeration to say that we need everyone to play the game of their lives, we're going away from home to play a top-class team who are on a roll, and that makes it a massive challenge for us," admitted Wright.
"What we'll be asking the players to do is view it as a great opportunity to pit themselves against the best in the Championship, show the pride they have in playing for their country, and really dig in for one another."
His England counterpart Rob Hunter will certainly not be underestimating the threat posed by the Auld Enemy and has also made a number of changes, bringing in Owen Farrell - the son of former England international Andy - and former Sevens star Christian Wade to his backline.
"We’ve made a few changes and it’s nice to have such good competition for places. We’re in a good position this week where we have a lot of players available to us, but we have a lot of guys performing well and putting pressure on each other.
“Scotland will be strong, committed, quick and organised. They present a different challenge from the three sides we’ve faced so far and any game against Scotland is huge due to the enormous amount of history and spice between the two nations.”
The weekend's other encounter brings together Italy and France at the Stadio San Michele di Calvisano in Brescia, the hosts battling to avoid the wooden spoon after three defeats and France eager to bounce back from a 19-8 loss defeat by England.