‘Athletically, he is phenomenal. We really don’t produce guys like him in Ireland’
‘Athletically, he is phenomenal. We really don’t produce guys like him in Ireland’

‘Athletically, he is phenomenal. We really don’t produce guys like him in Ireland’

THERE ARE INTERNATIONAL backs, some of them wingers, who will be jealous of Ryan Baird’s speed.

The little GPS unit that sits into a pocket on the upper back of rugby players’ jerseys has clocked the 21-year-old Leinster lock moving at just over 10 metres per second during a game.

To put that in context, the average max speed for a wing at the 2019 World Cup was 9.2 metres per second, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Baird – who made his Ireland debut against Italy in the Six Nations last weekend – is one of the quickest forwards in world rugby.

The pace was obvious when Baird burst away to score a stunning try from 45 metres out as part of his hat-trick against Glasgow last year on what was just his second start for Leinster.

Last summer when the province did their pre-season Bronco fitness test, which involves covering 1.2km in shuttle runs, Baird beat most of the backs. His time apparently wasn’t too far off the exceptional 4 minutes 11 seconds that fullback Hugo Keenan clocked.

Meanwhile, Baird’s counter-movement jump – a great measure of explosive power – is over 60cm, putting him in elite company in that category too.

To be fair, anyone who has seen the 6ft 6ins Baird play won’t be too surprised about the remarkable numbers he posts. He has been a unique athletic prospect since bursting onto the scene with St Michael’s College in schoolboy rugby.

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“His athleticism is really something to behold,” says Leinster academy manager Noel McNamara, who also coached Baird at Ireland Schools and U20 levels.

“There’s that enormous innate athleticism in Ryan that has people excited, but it’s important to understand that he’s still very young and there will be ups and downs.”

Baird after scoring a superb solo try for Leinster last year. Source: Tommy Grealy/INPHO

Already, Baird has encountered setbacks on the injury front and he is still getting to grips with the demands of being involved with Ireland, but the fact that head coach Andy Farrell kept him in camp this week suggests that Baird may be set for a role in next weekend’s clash with Scotland.

Baird comes from a sporting family. His father, Andrew, is an Old Wesley RFC man and was an active referee up until a few years ago, while he still does the timekeeping for some professional matches now.

Baird’s two younger brothers are good rugby players too. Back row Cameron played for the Leinster Schools team in 2019, the same year hooker Zach captained St Michael’s to a Leinster Schools Junior Cup trophy. Unsurprisingly, the Baird household was a competitive environment growing up, with the three brothers competing for the multi-sport ‘Baird Cup’ on holidays every summer. 

“I know they still play a bit of golf together and things can a bit heated, so I can only imagine what the back garden was like because they’re all big boys,” says Emmet MacMahon, who was Baird’s head coach at Senior Cup level in St Michael’s.

Baird’s parents are very supportive of his rugby career and have also encouraged his academic progress through a Computer Science and Business degree in Trinity, for whom he has played in the All-Ireland League under director of rugby Tony Smeeth.

“It really is a team effort, the Baird family,” says Smeeth. 

Ryan’s introduction to rugby came at the age of six with the minis in Old Wesley before he went to secondary school at The High School in Dublin. Baird was an out-half or wing in his early rugby days but moved into the second row in third year after shooting up in height. He was part of a talented group at The High School and they pulled off some impressive wins over more renowned rugby schools during his three years there.

Having been younger than many of his classmates, Baird repeated third year when switching to St Michael’s and he was soon making waves there as his athleticism and determination came to the fore.

Baird in action for The High School in 2014. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“He had been a really solid Junior Cup player and then in fourth year, he was phenomenal for the senior team,” recalls MacMahon.

“You hear generic stuff about guys being a bit of a freak but, to be honest, Ryan actually is. His genuine pace for a forward… he could be as quick as a winger, he really could.”

Rugby was his Baird’s sporting priority but he also put his physical prowess to good use in athletics, even coming second in the All-Ireland U18 shot put competition at one stage.

“He would show up at an athletics tournament having done nothing during the year against these poor fellas who had been doing it all year, and Ryan would be throwing further than most of them,” says MacMahon. “He came back from those events with a few medals and you’d be making sure it didn’t go to his head, getting him back to rugby.”

Baird played at number eight on a few occasions in school, as well as at blindside flanker, but was mainly a second row and called the St Micheal’s lineout in both fifth and sixth year, showing hunger to improve the set-piece, regularly sharing ideas and footage with team-mates and coaches in their WhatsApp groups.

McNamara first coached Baird for the Ireland Schools U18s in 2017, with that team captained by Craig Casey – who also made his senior Test debut last weekend in Rome – and including the likes of Harry Byrne, Ben Healy, Stewart Moore, and Tom Clarkson.

“Ryan would have stood out for all the reasons people are seeing now,” says McNamara, who went on to work with Baird in the Leinster academy and with the Ireland U20s, although the lock missed the start of the 2019 Grand Slam Six Nations campaign due to injury, only managing sub appearances in the last two games.

That injury did mean Baird was able to play for Trinity more often than might have been the case as he built back towards full fitness. Smeeth was delighted to get access to the gifted second row for seven or eight games in the 2018/19 season after Baird had finished school and gone straight into the Leinster academy.

Baird on his way to the tryline for St Michael’s in 2018. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

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“The thing I loved was that every time he played for us, he came out to training on the Tuesday night, when lots of other guys would only come on the Thursday,” says Smeeth.

“He’d come down for the set-piece stuff and he always brought a lot of enthusiasm. It never felt like he was going through the motions. He was never too good for the place.”

Baird was a starting lock for Ireland heading into the 2019 World Rugby U20 Championship and though he was shown a red card for a high tackle against Australia – McNamara diplomatically says it was a “questionable” sending off – Baird returned to make an impressive impact at blindside flanker against Italy and then New Zealand, combining with scrum-half Casey for a superb try against the Kiwis.

“I remember speaking to David Hill, one of the New Zealand coaches, afterwards and his main question was ‘Who is the number six?’” recalls McNamara.

Smeeth has a lasting impression of Baird’s thirst to get better. The Trinity director of rugby remembers getting a call from the Leinster man a few days before he flew out to Argentina for the U20s Championship. Baird had caught wind of Smeeth doing reviews with players using the Trinity man’s self-designed framework which sees the coach and player both rating individual parts of the player’s game.

The reviews usually take less than an hour but Baird arrived in and sat with Smeeth for three-and-half hours picking apart his game and comparing himself to previous Trinity players.

“He was reveling in it,” says Smeeth with a laugh. “He’s really into the detail, every little detail.”

McNamara has encountered the same traits and says Baird is “great at asking questions, he’s certainly very inquisitive around getting better.”

His senior Leinster debut came off the bench against Ulster towards the end of that 2018/19 season and after nine further caps for the province in the following campaign, he was fast-tracked onto a senior contract in the summer of 2020.

Baird stood out against the New Zealand U20s in 2019. Source: Pablo Gasparini/INPHO

Baird’s drive to fulfil his potential has seen him link up with sports psychologist Stephen McIvor – a former Ireland scrum-half – since last year to work on the mental side of his game, focusing on mindfulness and visualization.

Physically, Baird used the first lockdown period last year to add more than 4kg of mass to his frame, something that Paul O’Connell had highlighted as being important for the young second row – albeit before O’Connell had been appointed Ireland forwards coach.

Baird’s first involvement with Ireland came in January 2020 when Andy Farrell brought him to a pre-Six Nations camp in Portugal as a ‘development player’ and it seems likely he would have made his Test debut last autumn but for some badly-timed injury niggles.

Farrell didn’t include Baird in his initial 2021 Six Nations squad but he was brought in when Quinn Roux was forced out through injury and by all accounts, has thrown himself into the thick of things on the training pitch in recent weeks.

His Test debut came with 17 impressive minutes off the bench against Italy. Speaking post-match, Baird said a text from St Michael’s director of rugby Andy Skehan had made him determined to enjoy the occasion rather than be engulfed by nerves.

Baird is at the very start of his Test career and has only started one Champions Cup game for Leinster so far, meaning the hard work is still ahead.

“This is a guy who has very unique talents and it’s not something we see every day in Ireland, let’s call a spade a spade,” says McNamara.

“It’s about trying to understand how to harness that and Ireland have definitely done a good job of that, bringing him into the squad last year, then his debut at the right time in a good game to do so. It’s right to be excited about where he can get to but it’s going to be a journey to get there and it’s not going to happen overnight.”

The Leinster and Ireland coaches and players will keep Baird focused on rounding out his game and fulfilling his major potential, of which there is really no doubt.

“He has the athletic ability to be like Maro Itoje,” says Smeeth. “His ball skills are awesome too. I’ve been around a lot of rugby players but athletically, he is just phenomenal. We really don’t produce guys like him in Ireland.”

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