Kev McLaughlin could be Leinster’s version of Toulouse’s Jean Bouilhou, a player for whom the Mole has a whole heap of time. Bouilhou got his first cap for France back in 2001 as a 22 year old down in New Zealand, then got a second two years later in 2003 on tour to Argentina before the World Cup … and that’s the sum of his international career.
For Toulouse, however, he has been a mainstay: http://www.itsrugby.co.uk/joueur_294.html – 75 HEC matches, including 58 starts, and no fewer than three winners medals.
McLaughlin is also looking very much like a guy who may never be a regular international: his first cap came against Italy in the 2010 Six Nations as a 25-year old and his second a substitute’s appearance against Scotland in the warm-up match this summer before RWC11. He has Stephen Ferris and Sean O’Brien definitively ahead of him, and the likes of Dennis Leamy, John Muldoon and the Munster tyro Peter O’Mahony in the mix, so it could well be that his international career may mirror Bouilhou’s.
However, he is a very capable HEC-level player. He outplayed Test Lion Tom Croft last year in the quarter-final against Leicester, and like Bouilhou is a genuinely excellent third line-out option with a good head on his shoulders.
Rhys Ruddock will get plenty of game time this year, and has seen a lot of game time already this season: six starts and three games off the bench means that he has been involved in nine of Leinster’s ten competitive games this season. He also captained the side in both warm-ups against the Melbourne Rebels and Northampton and the first six competitive matches in the Pro 12. His 496 minutes of competitive rugby this season to date are the most any Leinster back-rower has played.
Leinster have a lot of depth in the back row, and of course not everybody is going to get as much game time as they’d like. The Mole would much rather be in the situation facing Schmidt and Gibbes where they have that level of depth and a degree of dissatisfaction amongst the players involved than be scrambling around trying to get guys from the academy or the second row to fill spots.
Amongst the Leinster fanbase there’s more than sufficient faith in Jonno Gibbes and Joe Schmidt that they are picking the right guys for the job, and that if Ruddock was showing up McLaughlin in training he’d be in with a fair chance.
There are also the horses-for-courses selection choices that come into play in specific matches. McLaughlin did an excellent job in the line out to lessen the threat of Glasgow’s best two players, their Scottish international second-row partnership of the 6’8″ Alaistair Kellock and the 6’9″ Richie Gray. McLaughlin is the best line-out operator in the Leinster back row corps, and had an excellent game in the air – on defensive duties at the line out, in receiving kick-offs and in challenging to reclaim kick-offs.
The Mole realizes that there’s a school of thought that Ruddock is ‘holding Leinster to ransom’ by only signing a one-year contract, and that he could well leave if he doesn’t think he’s getting sufficient game-time at a high level. It’s a short career as professions go, and the lad has to try and make the most of the time he has, and get as far as he can as soon as he can. He’ll have seen Toby Faletau starring in the World Cup, and might have been thinking to himself “That guy is the same age as me [literally, there’s only a day between them], and has been allowed get big game time with the Dragons and force himself into international contention”. While there’s a degree of truth there, if Ruddock was performing at a Faletau-esque level, there’d be no leaving him out of any team in the northern hemisphere … Faletau was playing to such a high standard that he would have forced himself into pretty much any back row in the World Cup, possibly with the exception of the two finalists.
The season is still in its infancy. Those critics who hold that Ruddock isn’t getting enough gametime should save their ammunition; the inevitable player welfare stipulations will kick in en masse and the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien [and possibly Shane Jennings as well] won’t be available to Schmidt for selection. There’s little doubt in the Mole’s mind that Ruddock will see an awful lot of gametime this season, and having already been capped by Declan Kidney, could well find himself included in Irish training squads as some of the older fringe players are axed as part of a post-World Cup purge.