Joe Schmidt rewards James Ryan with the ‘big day’ he deserves
Ireland coach says now is the time to give the 21-year-old Leinster lock a ‘challenge’
James Ryan in training ahead of Ireland’s Six Nations clash with France. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
James Ryan is still only 21, in his rookie year, with just five Leinster starts behind him and one for Ireland, and is clearly seen as an investment for the 2019 World Cup and beyond, but Joe Schmidt has no doubt that the lock’s time is also now.
Ryan will thus make his Six Nations debut, as will the 21-year-old Jacob Stockdale and the comparatively experienced Bundee Aki, in the cauldron of the Stade de France in Ireland’s Six Nations opener on Saturday (kick-off 5.45pm local time, 4.45pm Irish). He does so with Schmidt’s unwavering belief.
“Mentally he has a brain for it, he has an attitude for it, a maturity for it, and he has an athleticism for it,” said Schmidt after confirming the line-up to face Les Bleus at Ireland’s Carton House base before their flight to Paris on Thursday.
“When you combine those with the fact he has a skill, he is developing an understanding, and the best way to further development, is to challenge it. So for us, we want to keep challenging him because we are always challenging ourselves.”
Josh van der Flier’s inclusion is the only change in the pack which started last time out against Argentina, and with Ryan again chosen ahead of Leinster teammate Devin Toner, who is on the bench, it features just two thirtysomethings in captain Rory Best and Cian Healy, who turned 30 last October.
“It is a big day for him,” added Schmidt of Ryan. “Iain Henderson next to him has good experience and I think that will help him to a degree. Josh van der Flier, and CJ Stander, while they have not got too many caps, they have got good Six Nations experience, and obviously Pete O’Mahony has too.
“So the guys around him, that often allows someone to just solely focus on their role and that helps them do what they need to do, and what others need from them.”
Aki and Stockdale are retained alongside the anticipated return of the in-form Rob Henshaw and Keith Earls in the backline, prompting Schmidt to note that this provides some continuity from the successful November campaign.
The revitalised form of Fergus McFadden and Sean Cronin has seen their return to a matchday squad for the first time since 2016, while Luke McGrath has retained his place as the back-up scrumhalf ahead of Kieran Marmion. Describing it as “a very, very hairline decision”, Schmidt said it was based on McGrath’s superior kicking game in training and an adverse weather forecast.
There have been plenty of events outside the Irish camp this week, and Schmidt was clearly saddened by the news that his former Ireland assistant and defence coach, Les Kiss, has parted from Ulster by mutual consent (albeit he looks like another handy fall guy for more deep-rooted problems).
The Ireland coach maintained this hadn’t affected the Irish squad “because there is a bubble, there is a focus on what we need to do”, but added: “Obviously, Les is a friend of mine, he was outstanding as a coach for the national side and I enjoyed working with him. So, I guess when the Six Nations is over I’ll catch up with him but he’s very conscious that when he let me know that he was going to depart that he acknowledged that there was plenty on my plate at the moment and we’d catch up after the Six Nations.”
Ireland are seeking to launch their Six Nations with an eighth Test win on the trot, so generating momentum before three successive home games.
“Am I confident? I’m hopeful that we’ll get a fast start,” said Schmidt. “I know the French will want to get out of the blocks. The worst thing you can ever do to a French side is write them off. I remember speaking to one particular All Black after the 2011 World Cup where the All Blacks had really hummed their way through the Cup.
“France had done things like lost to Tonga and scrambled past a 14-man Wales team. Really, they were probably unlucky not to get a result there just because that is the unknown that they present, probably similar to this weekend. They present an unknown challenge. We know the individuals they have and the quality they bring.”
With this French team as much as any, there is also the fear of the unknown.
“My biggest fear is always that something that will go wrong in the build-up. Once the players kick off, it’s less fear, but there is always anxiety. You’re just trying to be clear-thinking and make good decisions regarding maybe messages on to players of which there are relatively few and the best timing of the replacements for the best reasons.
“So I would say that, whether I knew the team really well or I didn’t, I would be incredibly nervous in the lead-up to a Six Nations Test match. I think on Saturday, maybe it will be heightened a little bit, but I hope not.”