Leinster fans all over the world will have experienced a mixed return to rugby. The province dominated the domestic league and won the Guinness Pro14 for a seventh time, this time totally undefeated. However, this was followed by a disappointing loss to Saracens. Nonetheless, a definite positive for all Leinster fans has been the immaculate form of Ryan Baird. One of Ireland’s shining lights in recent months, Baird has picked up his season exactly where he left off—impressing everyone with his athleticism and power on the pitch.
Baird’s passion for the game started when he was young, but he never thought it would end up as his career. “I played minis and tag from about six onwards, but I never really knew when I wanted to be a professional rugby player,” he explains. At St Michael’s College, he honed his skills, impressing at senior cup level. Over the last number of years, we’ve seen the professionalisation of the Leinster Schools Senior Cup which has been called into question by some, but in Baird’s case, the structure growing up helped him develop as a player. “Sometimes I don’t consider myself a professional, it’s just what I do, I play rugby. It’s not really a job at all, it’s just a continuation of what I did at Michael’s, because the setup there was so professional that it was like going from one club to another.”
“‘I went from playing lads my age, 18 and 19, to playing guys who were thirty-odd years old so it really brought me up to pace.'”
Having left Michael’s behind, Baird arrived at the hallowed halls of Trinity, where he quickly joined Coach Tony Smeeth’s men at DUFC. “I really enjoyed the experience I had at Trinity. It was the first time since I’d left school that I wasn’t the biggest on the pitch,” laughs Baird, as he describes the new challenge of playing against men bigger and older than he was. “I went from playing lads my age, 18 and 19, to playing guys who were thirty-odd years old so it really brought me up to pace!” DUFC had a brilliant season in 2018/19, reaching the play-offs of the All Ireland League (AIL) First Division for the first time since their promotion in 2016. Baird was one of many players that were instrumental in Trinity’s success but it was Smeeth’s coaching that had an effect on them as players. “You can tell he really loves the game. You feel guilty if you’re not putting in the exact same amount of effort that he puts in. It really drove all of us and should drive anyone coming into Trinity.” As Baird’s career evolved, one of the more bittersweet elements was that he was unable to remain a part of DUFC. However, he looks back on the memories very fondly, “Not everyone can say they’ve played [rugby] in the middle of town, just off Grafton Street. And some of the away trips, was a great team vibe and everyone is around your age, so it is a special team to have been a part of.”
“Learning from the people around him is high on Baird’s priorities: not only is the dressing room filled with Ireland internationals, but the coaching staff also boasts an impressive roster.”
Having earned a place in the Leinster Academy straight out of school and then earning his stripes for DUFC, it was only a matter of time before the Leinster senior squad came looking for Baird and he made his debut for Leinster in 2019 in a clash with Ulster. In making the jump to the senior squad, Baird explained that “it really humbles you, playing with people with ten plus years experience,” and that it did take a little bit of getting used to. “I would have been a leader and one of the more experienced people for my school, but then when you come to a setup like Leinster, you’re right down the bottom of the pecking order again.” Learning from the people around him is high on Baird’s priorities as not only is the dressing room filled with Ireland internationals, but the coaching staff also boasts an impressive roster with Leo Cullen, Stuart Lancaster and Felipe Contepomi among the hierarchy. “There’s a wealth of knowledge to pick up from coaching staff and players alike” notes Baird. And nowhere is that sentiment more true than in the second row where he plays. Leinster are fortunate to have an abundance of talent in that area with long serving internationals like Devin Toner and Scott Fardy alongside younger players like James Ryan. “Each player has so much to offer. When you’re my age, I think you’re trying to build your own style of rugby, how you want to play the game. For me what I do best is taking nuggets of information from every single second row there and combining it all together,” explains Baird. “Dev and Ross (Moloney) are in there, great line out callers. Scott Fardy is a brilliant leader on the pitch and defensively, he has seen everything. Hopefully I can add some of those qualities to my repertoire and use them effectively.”
There are certain to be plenty of nuggets of second-row wisdom in the Leinster dressing room for Baird to pick up but few of them will have been about one of his greatest skills—try scoring. Baird scored his first try, quickly followed by two more in a game against Glasgow in 2019, further endearing himself to Leinster fans. “I would have played in the backs until I was about 13 or 14. I’d always been quite fast before migrating to the second row, but never really lost that touch. And it helped me out that evening!” recalls Baird as he reminisces about the details of his hat-trick. “Two of them were pick and goes which is what I’m supposed to be doing, the other one just happened!” There will likely be no arguments about how he scores his tries and it doesn’t look like it’s a habit he plans on giving up. Baird returned to rugby after the break in the pandemic with another try, scoring a blistering effort against Ulster, beating three men to crash over the line.
“Working away in the background on strength and fitness, Baird knew that rugby would return, but wasn’t all that concerned about losing skills.”
Rugby disappeared from our screens for a time during the pandemic and certainly left fans adrift with no reason to scream at the telly of a Saturday evening. For Baird though, the break provided some well-needed quality time with family. “I took a lot of time just to be with my family. My brother is moving to Edinburgh so this was going to be the last time when we were all together as a family,” he explains, “I had to take a positive mindset into it and make the most of it that I could.” Working away in the background on strength and fitness, Baird knew that rugby would return, but wasn’t all that concerned about losing skills. “Training becomes like riding a bike in a way; you don’t forget how to run or pass the ball. You might be rusty for the first couple days but you’ll pick it up right away.”
And Baird certainly wasn’t rusty. He started Leinster’s first game back after the break and continued to impress domestically before receiving the call up from Andy Farrell to be a part of the Ireland senior squad. “It was a huge moment for me. The night that the email came in I had actually already gone to bed and it was only when I woke up to get a glass of water in the middle of the night that I saw the email on my phone. I was over the moon!” Baird had previously played for Ireland U-20s in their Grand Slam winning campaign of 2018 and in March, had been included in the Ireland Development Squad, which he says was a huge learning experience. “He [Farrell] wanted to put us into the environment to see if we’d sink or swim and I learnt so much. The margins for error, even at Leinster, are so small but when you get to the international level, they get smaller and smaller. So you really have to be on the top of your game.”
Baird is one of a number of Trinity athletes who has had to find a way to balance their sporting career with their college work. He is currently in the second year of a Computer Science and Business degree and, despite the stresses of being a professional rugby player, seems to be coping with the workload. Trinity offers a method of splitting your years, which Baird has done, wherein a student-athlete can complete half a college year over the course of a full year meaning that they can also dedicate enough time to their sport of choice. “College for me is really good. It gives you something to stimulate yourself when you’re not training.” He notes, “I think you can go as a rugby player without having a back-up plan. It’s not like football where you sign one contract and that’s you sorted for life. There is life after rugby, so it’s about having a plan when you do retire, whether that’s tomorrow or in 10-15 years.” Hopefully, that retirement day is some time off yet for Baird as he continues to improve and impress in the game. His career is only truly beginning and will certainly do brilliant things in both blue and green jerseys.