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Dublin: 6 °C Sunday 29 March, 2020
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Ready for lift off - James Ryan wants to take Ireland to a higher level

James Ryan talks about handling big-match nerves, becoming a leader and why he decided to sign a new three-year deal with the IRFU.

Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

THE RAIN SPAT down on James Ryan. Nothing about that afternoon was pleasant, a day when the clouds opened and cried for Ireland’s Six Nations hopes. In the end, Wales nailed a 25-7 win to end the 2018 Six Nations season with a grand slam, Ireland with a fresh layer of self-doubt.

Eleven months on, there are still clouds overhead. Spring may have been tough but autumn was worse, a World Cup quarter-final exit compounding the misery of what happened in the Six Nations.

Now it’s 2020 and another storm is forecast – and we’re not just thinking in meteorological terms.

Wales, as well as Storm Ciara, are in town, the Welsh who added a World Cup semi-final to their resume in October, who have won 11 of their last 12 competitive games (ignoring the third/fourth place World Cup play-off) and who defeated Italy 42-0 last weekend.

“When you think back to how we played last week against Scotland, there were passages of play where we showed real toughness, defending our line as well as we did,” Ryan, Ireland’s 23-year-old second row, said. “But we got away with things then that we won’t get away with against Wales. They are a different animal. We’re definitely going to have to crank it up a bit.”

james-ryan-wins-a-line-out Ryan claims a line-out against Scotland. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

He lists Wales’ strengths, their energy, their work-rate; the attacking threats that resulted in 42 unanswered points last Saturday – and knows he’s in for a “messy” afternoon.

“They like to swim through line-out mauls, get turnovers, they like to choke you, and have got some players who make life uncomfortable and difficult for you. Alan-Wyn Jones is one of the guys who’s good at that.”

It was inevitable that Jones’ name would come up in conversation at some point, not just because he plays the same position as Ryan, more because of what he represents, a symbol of experience, Ryan of youth.

These are the kind of duels that never age in sport, this unforgiving arena where a man can start an afternoon in the prime of his life but end it with chroniclers writing his career obituary.

alun-wyn-jones Jones after the 2016 game in Dublin. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Could that be Jones’ fate today? The beauty of sport is you simply never know. The wind and the rain are the only things we can safely predict.

“Look, he’s certainly among the best second-rows in the world,” Ryan said. “At this stage, he has an insane amount of test caps, so he’s kind of the heartbeat of their team in many ways.

“I’ve huge respect for him, not just on the back of what he stands for as a player but also the way he handled himself after last year’s game. He was particularly gracious.”

Ireland, too, were remarkably charitable that afternoon, coughing up an early try and then gifting a series of soft penalties. Accordingly from the word go they were chasing a game, a difficult enough thing to do in ordinary circumstances, practically impossible in wet weather.

They’ve learned from the experience, Ryan insists, noting the two World Cup warm-up games they had against the Welsh last summer when they played more soberly and successfully.

Those victories were referenced in meetings this week as were the other lessons from last season’s 25-7 defeat; the need to be boringly efficient and structurally sound. If Storm Ciara turns out to be as disruptive as the weather people have suggested then Ryan believes Ireland should shelve their new attacking game-plan for a week.

“It can’t always be enjoyable,” he says.

Match-weeks rarely are for him. While he has to learned to contain his nervous energy, he still freely admits that come game-day, he goes through a tough enough time.

I’m better than I was. Like, in my first season with Ireland, I would have been very nervous. First thing in the morning I would have had a knot in my stomach. I used to hate the bus ride to the stadium but I’ve got a bit better at managing that. Some days are more nerve-wrecking than others.” 

Writing is a form of therapy. He likes to scribble down personal goals and team goals before games and then takes a bit of time to visualize certain moments ‘so that when match day comes I’ve kind of been there in a way’.

He’ll be staying ‘there’ for another three years, after finalising a new contract with Leinster and the IRFU earlier this week. “I’ve no interest in playing anywhere else at this point,” he says.

james-ryan-tackled-by-jacques-van-rooyen Ryan hopes to win more medals for Leinster and Ireland. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“We’ve had some success but both teams – Ireland and Leinster – are very ambitious. We have lots more to achieve. On top of that, there’s great blokes and management behind both squads. I’m loving being in both setups at the moment.”

They’re challenging him, though – wondering if he can find his voice and become a vocal leader. “They (Stuart Lancaster, Leo Cullen (the leading Leinster coaches) and Faz (Ireland head coach, Andy Farrell) want me to express myself on whatever I feel strongly about.

“I’m always trying to grow in that area. I’d say I’m a bit more comfortable in my skin now. When I was just coming into the Ireland set-up, there was an element of earning your stripes. Now, if I have a point to make, I probably feel a lot more comfortable making it.”

He needs to make a big one today.

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About the author:

Garry Doyle

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