The 21-year-old lock, who has some impressive mentors at Leinster, talks to Tom English about his rugby journey
Meet Ryan Baird – Irish rugby’s ‘next big thing’
Everybody in Leinster knew about Ryan Baird from a long way off, from way back in his school days when his giant frame, his big stride, his high knee lift was as obvious to those watching him as the grass he was eating up as the star second-row of St Michael’s College.
The Dublin school, where Father Ted (Dermot Morgan) once taught, is a rugby academy that has already delivered James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Max Deegan, Luke McGrath, Ross Byrne and Ronan Kelleher to the Test arena.
People in Leinster could see what he was capable of, but it was really only in late February of last year when everybody outside of Ireland began to see it. Baird scored a Guinness Pro14 hat-trick against Glasgow at the RDS that night.
A winger and a fly-half until he was 15, he always had pace and a desire to attack. His athleticism, his ball-carrying, his handling were all exceptional. He was only 20. It was just his second start.
Just before the hour mark, Baird exploded onto a pass from Harry Byrne more than 40m from the Glasgow line. He was through a gap between Glenn Bryce and Peter Horne before the full-back and the fly-half knew what was happening, he accelerated outside George Horne and there was nothing the scrum-half could do. He thundered all the way to the posts. In touching the ball down he announced himself as a senior rugby player.
Before the 80 minutes were up, Leinster folk were imagining the glorious future they were going to have with the dream team in the row – Ryan and Baird, the thought of it was tantalising.
“All the stars aligned for me that night,” he says. “The team played incredibly well and I got lucky with so much ball in hand. It was great fun.”
The months since have brought some more games, an appearance off the bench against Saracens in the Champions Cup quarter-final last September, an international call-up in October – and then an injury that checked his progress a little. But not for long. Leinster have a battalion of outstanding young players and Baird is in the vanguard of the movement.
“Rugby was always very important to me,” he says, “but when I was at school, around 12 or 13 years of age, I did a lot of athletics, some shot put, some other field events, 4x100m relays. I went to the All-Irelands twice in shot put and finished fourth and second. I’ve always wanted to try different things. I’ve always been into different sports.”
Some of his mates were big into NFL and so he got hooked on it. If he could spend a day with one athlete from any discipline in the world then it would be a close call between Tiger Woods (golf is another big deal for him, with a Sunday at the Masters high up on his bucket list) and Tom Brady, the quarterback who achieved immortality with the New England Patriots.
“I’d love to hear his thoughts about his (six) Super Bowl wins, the comeback versus Atlanta (in 2017 when the Patriots trailed 28-3 and yet won 34-28 in the greatest comeback in NFL history).
“I’d want to know how many hours he puts in, I’d want to know about the dedication required to become the greatest quarterback of all time. That would be special. God, yeah. When my mates told me that NFL was right up my street they were right. I started to look at it when I was about 17 or 18, but I really watch it closely now.”
Baird always had that thirst for knowledge, that’s what they’ll tell you about his school rugby days. They’ll tell you something else, too. They’ll mention the Leinster Schools Senior Cup semi-final of 2018. Donnybrook was the venue, Belvedere the opposition. Michael’s were coasting it. With ten minutes to go they were winning 19-3, a place in the final all but guaranteed. They lost 20-19.
“When you’re 18 and a rugby player at Michael’s, this is your world, your everything. You’re a team but you’re with your close friends, guys you’re living with day in, day out, guys you’ve grown up with, guys you’ve never really been away from for that long. You’re more like a family than a team.
“We lost that game and it was devastating. I was one of the major contributory factors in the loss. Even with one minute and 43 seconds left to play we were six points ahead.
“I think it was one minute and 43 seconds, but it was a stupidly low amount of time left and I tried to do a tip-on pass when what I should have done, as one of the biggest ball-carriers, was get the ball, put my head down and run. I tried the tip-on and yer man intercepts it, then I proceed to go offside while trying to fix the problem. Then, we go to the lineout on the five-metre line and four or five lads don’t hit the maul and they drive us over and score. That was a sore lesson that I’ll never forget, but you have to learn them.”
These are painfully early days in his career but they’re exciting times. He knows how lucky he is to be at Leinster where the second-row wisdom surrounds him like the cosiest blanket.
Ryan is a European Cup and Six Nations Grand Slam winner and an Ireland captain even though he’s only 24. Devin Toner, another sounding board, has 70 caps for Ireland. Scott Fardy is a World Cup finalist. His coach, Leo Cullen, is a former lock himself.
“I’ve got brilliant mentors. They’ve seen everything, they’re really approachable, they’re always keen to help and they’re great craic. I pick everybody’s brain. I want to accumulate as much knowledge as possible. I mean, I don’t want to be the guy asking millions of questions and maybe not acting on them, so you pick your moments.
“The most important thing sometimes is to say nothing and just look at how the top guys carry themselves. You can soak up a lot of information just by looking at them going about their work, how they train, how they live, what they say, how they say it. There’s an outrageous amount of second-row experience for me to tap into.”
Mindfulness is something he’s gotten into lately. At the start of last year he got to thinking about ways he could improve. He couldn’t do more weights than he was already doing, couldn’t do more physical stuff for fear of causing himself damage.
Physically and tactically I was doing everything I was supposed to, but I thought about the mental side. Mentally, could I do more?
“I started working with a psychologist called Stephen McIvor (a former Munster scrum-half, capped three times by Ireland) and we worked on mindfulness. How do the really top athletes deliver under pressure? How do they achieve calmness and clarity when the stakes are so high?
“Everybody is getting stronger, everybody is getting faster, everybody understands the game, so you’re looking for those edges and mindfulness is a pretty untapped area. It’s not even necessarily about meditation, it’s about visualisation.
“You can’t over-rep your body, you can’t do a thousand reps, but you can visualise what you’re going to do in certain situations so that when you get to the game it’s not the first time you have seen yourself make that carry or make that tackle. It’s familiar to you, you’ve seen it before.”
Whatever he’s doing, it’s working. Not that he’s getting ahead of himself. Yes, playing for Ireland is the goal – the Six Nations the next opportunity having been called up to train with the national squad following Connacht lock Quinn Roux’s injury – but just getting into the Leinster line-up is a challenge given the savage competition for places.
“Every day I go in there, I’m fighting for my spot. I’m not thinking about anything other than getting more games for Leinster. I really want to play international rugby, and getting the call-up was brilliant and surreal, but if I’m not focusing on what I’m doing in the here and now there ain’t gonna be a future for me. Every now and then I might have a dream about winning caps, there’s no harm in it, but the majority of time I’m in the moment.”
He says the most vivid rugby memory of his youth was the European Cup final of 2009, when Leinster beat Leicester 19-16 at Murrayfield. He went to Edinburgh with his dad, Andrew, a former player, coach and referee and a devoted disciple of the oval ball. Johnny Sexton played that day and is the last man standing.
“Johnny wants it now more than ever I think. He has an incredible hunger and that’s what I mean when I say that sometimes all you’ve got to do is look and learn. I remember one Sunday morning going in for a medical check-up and Johnny was in there rehabbing. There was hardly anybody around. He was by himself, just rehabbing. As a young fella, that’s a fairly powerful image.
“He’d done it all. Grand Slam, European Cups, Lions tours, probably around 34 years of age at the time I’d say. That mindset he has is inspirational. That kind of determination is what makes him a great player and it’s something that all of us can learn from. I watched Johnny on telly when I was a kid and now I get to train with him and play in the same team. I pinch myself the odd time.”
It might feel like a dream but it’s very much reality. Baird is only starting out in the rarefied air of pro rugby but, as Glasgow found out, once he gets going he’s a really, really hard man to stop.
This article originally appeared in the February 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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