Ahead of next Saturday night’s momentous Rugby World Cup Pool B clash between Ireland and South Africa in the Stade de France, Paul O’Connell warned the players that the temptation might be to do more work than was needed. He advised them to trust in what they had done since the start of pre-season three months ago, in their good habits, in their training and in their drills.
Nor was this confined to last few months, but in the last two years as well. While the walk-throughs, conversations, video analysis and visualisation all still had to be done, the key to his message was to enjoy the week and when it was downtime, to switch off. Don’t get over-stressed.
No doubt he had some of his own playing days in mind, and perhaps the World Cup four years ago too, after which the IRFU high-performance director David Nucifora cited “performance anxiety” in his review of Ireland’s campaign.
One senses that no player in this squad is more influenced by, or more closely aligned to, O’Connell than James Ryan, and that their working relationship goes deeper than lineout coach and lineout caller.
Ryan was professional long before he ever turned professional and has always believed that the earlier he is all over his detail, the easier his run-in to the game.
“The early part of the week, and a big part of the week, is about giving me confidence, so I like to prepare very thoroughly on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday in terms of all the detail,” said Ryan, exuding an ensuing calmness at his Wednesday media briefing at the squad’s base in Tours.
“Then I feel like in the run into the game on Thursday and Friday, that gives me the confidence to go in and be able to enjoy the game and build maybe the emotional energy that you need. That’s the way I’ve always kind of structured my week and I feel like it works for me but there probably was a stage of working out what plan works best for me. That’s kind of it, that’s the way I like to structure it.”
Continuing his form of last season, which was probably his best yet, Ryan is 27 now and has 57 caps already, all of which helps as well as familiarity with huge occasions such as this.
With experience comes less nerves? He’s not sure.
“Sometimes I think I get less nervous but then the gameday arrives and you’re having the pre-match meal or you’re hopping on the bus and driving into the stadium and you feel, ‘surely I haven’t felt as nervous as this?’ Do you know what I mean?” he says.
“I think I know how to manage the week a bit better now because of experience but I think there’s parts of the day like the pre-match meal and getting on the bus and those different things, I don’t think they ever change no matter how experienced you are; the nerves that come with that.”
The wearing of ear pods or headphones is virtually compulsory on match days, not least because the players’ musical tastes vary enormously. Andrew Porter’s preference for heavy metal would be a far distance from what Ryan “a bit of a mix to be honest” before revealing he is veering toward a British pop-rock band.
“I like The 1975 at the moment. They work well for me, nice and mellow, not too much. They don’t tip me overboard,” he says.
Although a 9pm kick-off can certainly make the day drag, this didn’t bother Ryan last week when Ireland played Tonga at the same time in Nantes.
“I actually didn’t mind it at all. I tried to sleep in for as long as I could. I probably go to bed a little bit later on the Friday night, just because you know the game is so late on Saturday night.
“So, I tried to sleep in as long as I could. And then [I] did a little bit of prep mid-morning. Went back to bed and there was some rugby on to distract myself a bit.
“Some lads kind of split it into two days almost. They got up early, had breakfast and stuff and then went back to bed for a good few hours.
“But I was okay with it. I think the Samoan game probably helped as well. We got a bit of a taste of it in Bayonne. So, hopefully this week, it will be a bit easier for us as a group to get around it.”
So what time does he switch into match mode?
“Probably when we get on the bus, around seven o’clock I’d say, I kind of switch into match mode. But even so, I try to stay nice and calm and chill out. Not get revved up too early. When you get to the stadium, that’s when you are properly in the zone.”
Whenever it comes to making the switch into match mode, it shouldn’t be difficult.
“They’re the reigning world champions, we have a huge amount of respect for them and we know we’ve got to really step it up this week. So there’s that added little pressure that comes with the week but we’re very excited. Getting to play the world champions in Paris, Stade de France, World Cup week, 30,000 Irish supporters in the stadium, it is very exciting. It’s a cool week to be involved.”