James Ryan relishing unique experience of New Zealand tour

Lock recognises this could be the last time Ireland travel for a five-match tour in this way

For James Ryan, like the vast majority of the Irish squad, this is a first tour of New Zealand, a uniquely intense rugby experience. Some have found it too intense but Ryan, unsurprisingly, has rather taken to it.

Andy Farrell has frequently spoken of the need to embrace the challenges of this tour and if any player in the squad was inclined to do so it had to be Ryan. You get the sense that there’s no such thing as too much rugby in his world.

“Yeah, they do like their rugby here, that’s definitely one takeaway. There’s rugby pitches in the middle of the city. They’re everywhere and you pop into the gym or grab a coffee and people everywhere are asking you about the game or about rugby.

“It’s kind of cool actually and it’s great to be touring in a country like that,” Ryan said with a smile, as if at his own reputation for being such a rugby devotee ever since his years at St Michael’s. “They love that you’re here and they love that you’re competing against them.”

So far, the squad have spent a fortnight in Auckland before flying down to Dunedin and Ryan admitted: “I really like Auckland. We’ve even been pretty lucky with the weather. The lads with the Lions in 2017 said it rained for the whole time but it’s been dry mostly, which is great.

“The food’s been good. There’s a 30 per cent Asian population here or something like that and I like my Asian food so we’ve have had a bit of a window to get out and get a bite to eat. I’ve enjoyed that as well. So I’m liking it and looking forward to heading to Dunedin as well.”

That there may never be a three-test series against the All Blacks in New Zealand again, and with a couple of games against the Maori All Blacks thrown in, only serves to heighten its value in Ryan’s career, no matter how long that might be.

“That’s what they said to us at the start. When you think of five games in the space of a few weeks, it might never happen again, so that’s what this whole tour is about. It’s about really challenging ourselves in the toughest conditions and that’s what it was like last week.

“We had the Maori game and a Test on the Saturday, and that’s what it’s going to be like in the next couple of weeks. That’s exactly what we want. Obviously we’re disappointed with the weekend but the great thing about a Test series is that you get to go again this week, and the best thing about this tour is that it will give us clarity about where we’re at and where to improve on.”

“It’s tough, but it’s just a great opportunity, what we’ve said all along. So 2018 was the last tour,” said Ryan of the Oz odyssey, “but this tour is just different, the five games. We’re trying to build over the next 18 months and this tour is a huge part of that. It’s been about making it as tough as we can for us and seeing how we respond. Similarly last time in 2018, we lost the first Test and we had to respond, so we need a big response this week.”

Quite a few of the Irish players have been spotted spinning around the pavements of Auckland on the phalanx of public scooters that populate the city, and Ryan is a fan of them too.

“They need to get the scooters into Dublin, don’t they?” he said, before having a quick re-think. “I don’t know how well they’d work though. I think they could be trouble. But they’ve been brilliant, 20 (New Zealand) dollar pass for the whole week. We’ve got some guys that are on the financial tips and advice, and so Tadhg Beirne and I think it was Ryan Baird gave us the heads up on saving a few bucks. Buy the pass, scooter for the week!”

Ryan, by contrast, is one of those handing out the fines.

“I’m one of the Sheriffs, so making sure guys don’t slip up. If anyone’s late or any mishaps, they get punished pretty severely actually. Probably things that can’t be printable. The punishments and fines, we’re pretty corrupt so we take all sorts in exchange.”

The most heinous crime to date?

“The most heinous crime? No, I won’t even go into it. But it’s a bit of craic. It’s important to make the tours enjoyable and then from Wednesday, Thursday you start to focus in on the Test.”

With so many members of the squad on their first tour of any kind, this venture is as much of an opportunity for growth off the pitch as on it.

“Yeah, Faz always drives that. He wants not just Johnny or Pete or whatever, he often says he wants everybody to be a leader, everybody to come out of their shell. It’s a big part of this tour and we’ve talked about how the Maori games are just as important as the Tests in terms of building that squad and that depth and helping the young guys step up. We’ve definitely seen guys step up to the plate and be more vocal and have a point of view.”

While Ryan is himself still growing as a Test player and especially as a leader, his All Blacks counterpart as lineout caller, Sam Whitelock, has been ruled out of the remainder of the series with concussion.

“I don’t think it will affect them hugely. Obviously he is their main lineout operator, he’s very good at calling the lineout, he’s very good defensively, but I think (Brodie) Retallick will fit into that role pretty seamlessly.”

With Scott Barrett in the backrow in last week’s first Test, Ryan admitted that the All Blacks’ additional height was challenging.

“But that’s what you want as lineout caller. I thought we struggled at times. I thought our winning was good at times, for our exits or when we got into their 22, but we probably struggled a little bit around the amber, or the middle of the park, and they got up to compete a good few times quite well.

“So for us it’s just making sure that our drill is as good as it can be so that we can be as good as we can be in that part of the game because we couldn’t really launch the way we wanted.

“We couldn’t properly put our best foot forward in terms of our attack and in terms of our starter plays because of the set-piece at times. That’s one that we need to fix for this week.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times