James Ryan happy to exercise his rights on the pitch
Election takes a back seat for squad as Ireland focus on overcoming Welsh challenge
James Ryan: “I’d say I’m a bit more comfortable in my skin now. When I was just coming in, there was an element of earning your stripes and things like that.” Photograph: Brian Reilly-Troy/Inpho
This is a defining day for the country and, these things being entirely relative, possibly for the Irish rugby team as well. But as an aside to the day’s main event a combination of the Six Nations organisers and Leo Varadkar choosing a Saturday for a general election has contrived to ensure that the Irish squad will not be able to exercise their democratic right today. Another duty calls.
This seems particularly ironic in the case of James Ryan.
After all, his great grandfather of the same name was first elected the last time a general election was held on a Saturday, December 14th 1918. He was one of over 70 representatives who rejected Westminster and, along with others such as Countess Markievicz, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera, was among those Sinn Féin MPs to set up the first Dáil in January 2019.
What’s more Ryan’s great grandfather, chief medical officer at the GPO in 1916, would subsequently be one of the founders of Fianna Fáil in a long and distinguished political career.
Otherwise engaged by Ireland’s call at the Aviva Stadium this afternoon, none of the Irish squad will have the time to vote.
“No, no, we won’t be able to, and neither will any member of the staff,” confirmed Ryan, before adding inquisitively: “Did you watch the debate? There was a lot of barking at each other. Entertaining though.”
Ryan and one or two others excepted, you’d imagine the election excites little interest within the squad.
“No, there is a bit. The lads take an interest in that stuff, which I was actually a bit surprised by, especially some of the physios, Colm Fuller and Foxy [Keith Fox], and Willie Bennett, our massage therapist, they all have a keen interest in what’s going. But yeah, you might miss a bit of it with what’s going on at the moment,” says Ryan dryly.
The squad were similarly disenfranchised at the last general election, on Friday February 25th, 2016, as it was the travel day before the 21-10 round three loss at Twickenham, although in Ryan’s case, it fell before his 18th birthday.
While he would have voted for the first time if possible, Ryan preferred to keep his leanings off the record. Suffice to say he’s his own man, and besides which, needless to say, he’d rather be playing for Ireland against Wales in the Six Nations.
Ryan acknowledges that Ireland have to be better than was the case in Saturday’s hard-earned win over Scotland as they prepare to host the reigning Grand Slam champions.
“I think the foundation of the way they play is built around their energy, their work-rate, how quick they can get up and get off the floor, and I think their attacking threats are massive.”
Each team is guaranteed to bring something particular to the Test arena and Ryan has only faced Scotland as many times [four] in his international career, as he has Wales.
“They’re going to make your life very difficult, particularly up front I think. They’re messy, they like to swim through lineout mauls, get turnovers, through somebody like Alun-Wyn Jones. They like to choke you, and turn the ball over in that way, and then they’ve got some guys who are very good over the ball as well.”
“So I just think they make it uncomfortable, they make it very messy and if you’re not early and you’re not accurate, it can be very difficult for you.”
Ryan was just nine-years-old when Jones earned the first of his 144 caps in 2006 and this will be the third time he has come up against the great Welsh captain. Ryan was on the winning side when Ireland completed the third leg of their Grand Slam at the Aviva Stadium in 2018; Jones led Wales to their Grand Slam coronation in the Principality Stadium last March before they opposed each other again in last September’s World Cup warm-up match in Dublin when Ireland won 19-10.
“I’ve played against him a few times at this stage so maybe it’s not as momentous as it would have been the first time I played him. But yeah, he is certainly amongst the best secondrows in the world. He has an insane amount of Test caps now. He’s kind of the heartbeat of their team in many ways.”
Reflecting on the loss in Cardiff last March, Ryan admits: “I think we could have managed that game a bit better. I think we’ll learn from that.”
One of the lessons which Ryan says Ireland applied in the two World Cup warm-up wins was not to force the pass, and as Storm Ciara hits, this is even more applicable.
Indeed, memories of last March, when Ireland soon regretted having the roof open, seem particularly relevant. Playing catch-up in the rain against this Welsh defence is to be avoided.
“Yeah, because it’s wet already and if you get a bad start you’re chasing the game and if it’s like that it’s not a position you want to be chasing the game in,” agreed Ryan.
“We were trying to chase the game then and it just fell into exactly what they wanted. The rain was pouring down and they got their ‘D’ [defence] really well set and they were flying off the line. It was a difficult position to be in.”
Time was when Ryan was so nervous before Test games he used to wake up with a knot in his stomach on the mornings of matches.
“I used to hate the bus ride in into the stadium,” he reveals, “but I’ve got a bit better at managing that. There’s still the odd game when I do get that for no particular reason. Sometimes I just do feel more nervous than on other days but in general, I think I manage it a bit better.
“I wouldn’t say relaxed is the right word, maybe a bit more, I don’t know what the right word is, because it’s not laid back, but maybe I don’t have as much nervous energy as I would have had this time two years ago. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not as much up for it.”
He talks about cramming his preparation into the early part of the week, as that helps him relax later in the week, although you can’t imagine that was ever a problem for him, and then cramming in the food.
“Physically, I like to ‘carb load’, just eating as many calories as I can in the 48 hours leading up to the game because obviously you’re going to use up a lot of that fuel when you do play.
“I like to write down little personal goals before the game and team goals that we’ve focused on for the week, and then I like to spend a bit of time visualising that to know what that looks like, so that when match day comes I’ve kind of been there in a way. They’re two things, and then obviously sleep, and physically making sure that I’m kind of firing.”
Ryan’s nickname, ‘Cheese’, is presumably not reflective of his diet, more an ironic twist on Big Cheese, for while he’s tall he has no big opinion of himself. It also predates his arrival in the Irish squad.
A diligent professional from the St Michael’s production line, his attention to detail as well as ability made him a ready-made professional, and a model pupil for Joe Schmidt, who fast-tracked him into the Irish squad two and a half years ago before he’d made his Leinster debut.
As revealing as anything Ryan said when first discussing his familial political history with the media over a year ago was his rejecting the idea that video analysis from his early teens might be too all-consuming. Such a thought almost bemused him. Rather, Ryan thought, it was partly the making of him.
Yet, aside from an interest in history and politics (which he studied in UCD) there is clearly much more to Ryan than comes across in his public persona.
Leinster and Irish team-mates not only speak in awe of his devotion to the game and his ability, but for the way he switches off as well as on.
In addition to being up for a few laughs, and prompting them with his wit, Ryan is also known for his acute ear for music. He is happily entrusted with choosing playlists on team buses or at end of season parties, and his taste is wide-ranging. Apparently, he can sing a tune too. He’s also a handy snooker player, and he’d hardly have much need of the ‘rest’ or cue extension.
He’s coming out of his shell in other respects too. For all Ryan’s obvious FIC (Future Irish Captain) potential, by his own admission he’s gradually become a little more comfortable in the more rarefied air of the Irish squad and Test rugby.
Signing on to a new three-year central contract with Leinster and Ireland was, he admits, “fairly routine”, adding: “Although it was only announced this week it was agreed a few weeks ago. I was happy with how it went. I never really had any interest playing anywhere else at this point.
“I’ve lots more to achieve. We’ve had some success but it’s two teams that really want to grow and are very ambitious. On top of that, there’s great blokes and management behind both squads. I’m loving being in both set-ups at the moment.”
Ryan wants to grow as a player and a person too.
“Stuart [Lancaster] and Leo [Cullen] at Leinster, and Faz here, they’re always big on being yourself. Having a point of view and coming to a meeting ready to have your point of view and ready to express yourself on something that you feel strongly about.
“That’s been some good lessons for me in terms of off-pitch stuff. I’m always trying to grow in that area. With someone like Johnny [Sexton] I think he drives things and he expects perfection which is great. I think we can all learn plenty from him.
“I’d say I’m a bit more comfortable in my skin now. When I was just coming in, there was an element of earning your stripes and things like that. Now, if I have a point to make, I probably feel a lot more comfortable making it.”
Still growing. There’ll be other opportunities to cast his vote.