"King Pig" ready to lead title defence

by Brett McKay

They’ve been referring to themselves as ‘the Pigs’ in Perth for a few seasons now, which means Perth Spirit’s newly appointed skipper for the 2017 National Rugby Championship has been lovingly dubbed, ‘King Pig’.

Whatever affectionate label is thrown his way, scrumhalf Michael Ruru is still pinching himself at the appointment.

“To be honest, I was a bit chuffed,” Ruru told RUGBY.com.au this week, ahead the first round of the season.

“There’s any number of quality leaders in our team at the moment with Super Rugby experience and just rugby experience in general.

"To be given the ‘C’ next to my name, I’m obviously stoked, honoured and privileged but anyone of them could’ve been captain as well.”

The Western Force No. 9 has had an excellent 2017 already, having such an impact off the bench after Ryan Louwrens’ knee injury ended his season, Ruru forced himself ahead of the more experienced Ian Prior.
Ruru has had a breakout year with the Force. Photo: Getty ImagesAnd Ruru was front and centre as the Force began their late march up the Australian conference ladder, meaning that he was always going to be one of the first ‘Pigs’ named by Spirit coach Kevin Foote.

So what sort of captain is he?

“I don’t actually know, to be honest,” Ruru said through a chuckle.

“I like to lead by actions rather by saying too much, so I guess we’ll have to wait and see."

While he mightn’t know what kind of captain he is yet, what Ruru does know is how crucial the NRC has been for his development as a player.

The inaugural NRC competition in 2014 saw the largely-unknown Nedlands scrumhalf included in the wider Spirit squad but with the likes of Louwrens, Prior, and Justin Turner ahead of him the pecking order, game time was scant.

In 2015, Ruru took advantage of further opportunities and by 2016, he had won a spot in the Western Force squad.

As far as great examples of club players becoming Super Rugby players go, Ruru is one of the NRC poster boys.

“The NRC is a great comp in general. It really creates that pathway between club and Super Rugby, shortening the gap for people to make that step up,” he explained.

“To have that in the west is a huge bonus.

"To be able to play with quality players and quality Super Rugby players, not only over east, but Melbourne and Canberra too, it really drives you as a club player.

"You get that little taste and if you’re quite good or if you’re around the mark, you can realise that Super Rugby isn’t that far away if you knuckle down and train hard.

“That’s message we’re trying to get across to the club guys - just because you’re not professional, doesn’t mean you can’t train like you are.”

It works both ways, of course.Ruru has turned consistent NRC form into a stellar Super Rugby season. Photo: Getty ImagesClub players in the strong Perth competition have a proper goal to strive for during the season.

In 2017, 11 of the 33-man Spirit squad initially named have been selected solely out of club rugby in Perth.

“Some of the boys who have selected for Perth Spirit this year out of the Pindan Premier Grade over here, they’ve been week in-week out consistent and there’s a few unlucky guys who haven’t made it, but they’re still striving now for next year.

“Everyone that’s over here playing at Premier Grade level, they’re trying to get that little crack at NRC and hopefully if takes from there for them.”

Of course, being the reigning NRC champions means the Spirit can’t fly under the radar anywhere nearly as well as they did in 2016.

But having a target on their back sits well with them, Ruru explains.

“We’ve got a pretty strong squad, but there’s probably a little bit more pressure on us this year, which we’re relishing.

"We’re enjoying being on the other side of the coin now - in previous years we’ve been seen as underdogs, or maybe not as strong, whereas this year we know people will be taking us more seriously.”

You’d have been excused for thinking the Spirit might have a hard time concentrating on rugby again, after the unimaginably rocky season experienced by those at the elite level in Perth.

The Western Force’s legal battle to remain in Super Rugby will carry on in the background but Ruru said being able to play rugby again is the best way of coping with what must be a stressful situation.

“Oh definitely, it is the elephant in the room,” he said.

“To be honest, we’re still pretty tight. Nothing’s really changed on the mental side, or the wellbeing side throughout the year.

"We’ve stuck pretty tight through this whole… well, it’s nearly been 12 months now, hasn’t it, but we’ve stuck tight this whole journey, there’s been no cracks.
Ruru will lead the Spirit's title defence this year. Photo: Getty Images“But I think having the NRC’s been good for everybody.

"We’ve come off that break from Super Rugby, then all the news came out, so to have the NRC here, it’s not a distraction, but to have something to focus on and put our energy back into, it’s been good not just for the team but the coaches and everyone at RugbyWA.

“Just being able to focus, and say, ‘this is our little plan, this is where we want to be in ten weeks time’.

"That’s been the real bonus of having the NRC, if the NRC wasn’t here, we’d just be sitting around waiting.

“It’s given us a real goal to focus on.”

And focus they must, because the NRC being a short season means no team can afford to start slowly.

A very good Melbourne Rising team is heading west, ahead of what will be an intriguing contest on Sunday.

“Yeah, we’ve had a big focus on just tightening up our skills and those simple things in the game," Ruru said.

"We know we’ve got to start early against Melbourne on Sunday, they’ll be looking to get a good win on the board too, being on the road.

“It’ll be a tough game, but we’re hoping to get that good start to the season.”

McGillivray Oval will provide the backdrop, with RugbyWA declaring free entry for the 2017 NRC season and the rugby-loving public in Perth ready to accept the ‘Fill the Hill’ challenge each home game.

“The west will definitely get behind us,” Ruru said confidently.

“With everything that’s being going on, Western Australia has really galvanised behind us as one of their teams, so we expect a full hill and some great support and a good game of footy.”