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Ryan Baird a man in a hurry to make his mark for Ireland

Leinster forward wants to make up for lost time and impressed in his cameo against Italy

Although James Lowe was tackled into touch before he could ground the ball to apply the coup de grace with an intercept try in the game’s final play, first to reach him with a high five was a beaming Ryan Baird, who then punched the Roman air in celebration of Ireland’s 34-20 win.

Baird has good memories of the Stadio Olimpico, having made his debut in the same ground, albeit an empty one, two years ago, but it had been exactly a year since he won his eighth cap in the corresponding game at home to Italy.

A ninth cap might have eluded him too but for the misfortune that befell Tadhg Beirne, thereby opening a route into the 23 as a replacement. Given a 25-minute run off the bench, the 23-year-old knew he had to take his opportunity. And he did.

His athleticism has long since made him a standout prospect, and that was in evidence in the way Baird chased down kicks and put pressure on Italy outhalf Paolo Garbisi.


But there were also key contributions, such as his strength over the ball when withstanding a double clear-out to earn the penalty from which Ross Byrne restored Ireland’s seven-point lead with a 65th minute penalty.

The handling skills honed from his younger days playing Gaelic football with Naomh Olaf were also on show. In that 18-phase attack which culminated in Mack Hansen’s second try, Baird hit rucks, made a couple of good carries and had a couple of deft tip passes inside for Conor Murray and Caelan Doris to carry over the gain line before Murray’s snipe and offload led to Hansen’s finish.

There was also Baird’s lineout steal when beating Michael Lamaro to a long throw by Luca Bigi seven metres from the Irish line. Given his versatility as a lock cum blindside flanker – where he has made seven of his ten starts for Leinster this season – his value to the squad has been reasserted.

“I was just out there playing, whatever was in front of me,” he said afterwards. “A lot of the work is done in the middle of the week. I put on my sheet today just ‘trust’,” he said looking at his inside shoulder. “I went out and just trusted it. I didn’t think much out there to be honest, whatever was in front of me, just go and do that. I visualised a lot of it during the week.”

Explaining his mentality going into the match, Baird said: “It was tough for the first two games not playing so I said when I got my chance, I’m going to fucking take it!’ And I felt I played well. I knew the system. When I came on, I tried to give the boys a boost. I’d fresh legs, try to just bring a bit of energy into the team. Yeah, it was great.”

His focus going into the game had been clarified by the words he had written on the inside of his left forearm.

“I’d just put down the points the night before, journaling. I’ll list out a couple of things I want to focus on. A lot of us do that. Kind of just zone in, because you’ve taken in so much information throughout the week, as the week goes on, you just want to slowly funnel it into two or three words that are going to stick out to you. And then you just go for those in the game.

“The last bit is ‘trust’, trust that you know the majority of information and have two or three cues that just kicks it in, so I’ve them written on my wrist.”

What made this even more special than his debut, which was played in an empty echo chamber, was the presence of supporters, particularly his family.

“After the Captain’s Run, I was just lying on the ground looking at the stadium for ten minutes. And then, walking around after, it’s just beautiful seeing everyone celebrate. If you focus in on a few people, you can see how much it means to individuals out there. I saw my Dad (Andrew), and my two brothers, it’s very special. I obviously made my debut here two years ago, so this will always be a special ground, to come back here. But to do it in front of my family was particularly special.”

“He [his dad] is just so proud of me, I’m just so thankful to him. When I see my brothers, one is in Spain so I don’t see him that often during the year. He’s always trying to get me to maximise my performances, and to have him there witnessing it is great,” said Baird of his younger brother Cameron who is in college in Edinburgh and studying on Erasmus in Barcelona.

“He’s doing a lot of rowing, training twice a day, pretty much five days a week. He’s got the mindset I have and is working hard. It’s great to bounce stuff off him. He does have the frame for it.”

“And my youngest brother (Zach), trying to inspire him to get his best potential out on the rugby pitch. If I can do that, if he takes something from seeing me, then it’s a job well done. He’s Under-20s, he’s not in the [Irish] squad but he’s pushing to get in.”

Having had a taste of it, Baird himself wants history to repeat itself even more now. After that debut two years ago, he also played in the ensuing wins away to Scotland and at home to England.

“It’s a great team, Credit to Faz (Andy Farrell), the environment he created, the culture, it’s really special. You’re on, you’re so focused, everyone wants to improve, everyone wants to learn, feed off each other, but then when the meetings are over, it’s fun, Faz makes jokes, it’s a great group, we work really hard then come down and chill out as well because that is important.”

And, of course, for Ireland to repeat the trio of victories he was initially part of two years ago would be even more special too.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times