Neither Ryan nor Leinster falling prey to second season syndrome
‘We love expressing ourselves with ball in hand. We’ve guys who love playing rugby’
James Ryan: “I think Saracens are a different beast to Toulouse. We definitely have to crank it up a few notches as they are the only unbeaten team in Europe this year.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Second season syndrome. James Ryan has made it an obsolete notion. An old ailment vaccinated out of existence.
The minting of Ryan and also Jacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour make it seem like mental conditioning and team organisation have coalesced into the modern player, off the shelf racing spec.
Why should there be a failure second time out? Because Ryan is a marked man maybe, because it’s more difficult with two players hitting him on the gain line?
“Not especially. No, there is nothing that particularly stands out,” he says like a second season veteran.
Ho hum. Composed and not prone to drama he may be. But Ryan knows a quantum leap from Leinster’s best performance of the eight months against Toulouse last time out is required and expected next time out against Saracens in the European Champions’ Cup final.
The thought of a Leinster team falling short of what they know they have to bring to St James Park may just get him animated.
“It was up there with our best performance of the year. To keep Toulouse scoreless [try-less] was really pleasing with some of the individuals they have so we were happy with that.
“But I think Saracens are a different beast to Toulouse. We definitely have to crank it up a few notches as they are the only unbeaten team in Europe this year. They won all six pool games, they looked very ruthless and efficient against Munster and Glasgow. We are well aware we are going to have to raise our game.
“I think they are better than last year. I think Billy Vunipola playing for them makes a difference. I think we are better than last year too.”
Vunipola joined Saracens from Wasps in 2013. This will be their fourth final since then and potentially their third win. The force of nature is healthy but has been beset by injury, a broken arm for the third time in 10 months last October forcing him out of the game for 12 weeks and removing him from England’s armoury for the November Tests.
“Their defence is so good,” adds Ryan. “They have been the best in the Premiership this year. They conceded three tries in the quarters and semi. Their attack scored nine so yeah...”
It was with a sigh of relief that Leinster took to the pitch in Aviva, without any ill-effects of their massive quarter-final struggle against Ulster still evident.
Toulouse drew out both a performance and a victory from their semi-final. But it begs the dangerous question of whether there is another Ulster performance lurking inside or has coach Leo Cullen purged his side of slow days at the office.
“We were just kinda in a bit of a transition period, post-Six Nations,” he says. “The team is chopping and changing so we had a few more weeks after Ulster to prepare and that cohesion started to come back slowly.”
In the end Leinster know they have to force what they are good at on Saracens. The hard up defending, high tempo and high collision at the breakdown cut with sure hands and a freedom to play rugby.
Scarlets and Ospreys were able to do it. But if the template of how the Welsh teams beat the English side doesn’t fit then it won’t become part of the Leinster play book in Newcastle.
“We’re aware of that,” says Ryan, his default needle set at precocious wise head. “But Leinster rugby is what we’re looking to bring to it. We love expressing ourselves with ball in hand. We’ve guys who love playing rugby, like James Lowe, so we’re looking forward to it. We know how good their defence is. It’s not going to be easy to carve them open.”
But, like second-season syndrome, perhaps that’s another notion Ryan and his team-mates will be keen to put to bed.