Tracy aiming to take giant leap forward
Omitted Irish hooker knows he needs to regain best form
Unlike some of his Irish colleagues, James Tracy already knows what it is like to pull on a green jersey in Japan.
Unlike some of his colleagues, however, Tracy also knows his chances of doing so again later this year are dwindling by the day.
While Ireland's Six Nations squad warm up for their title defence in Portugal this week, the Leinster hooker remains out in the cold, training in near-zero temperatures at his club's HQ. "It is not where I want to be," the Kill, Co Kildare native admits.
Eighteen months ago, Tracy was wallowing in a debut for his country against Japan as a squad denuded of their Lions contingent effortlessly completed a series win against the Brave Blossoms while Joe Schmidt drilled even deeper to maximise his squad depth.
Tracy was the primary beneficiary then; now, though, he has once again slipped down the ranks and finds himself on the outside looking in.
As it stands, the conventional wisdom has it that captain Rory Best leads the charge at hooker as Ireland plot to smash their World Cup glass ceiling; behind him, Seán Cronin, Rob Herring and Niall Scannell are squabbling for the remaining two plane tickets.
That leaves Tracy as fifth choice; Connacht duo Dave Heffernan and Tom McCartney will viably claim to become involved in that minor squabble.
For now, though, that is the reality of Tracy's position - a minor squabble to become even involved in a World Cup discussion.
So soon after his Ireland debut, admittedly in restrained circumstances, it is a stark scenario. But then a player who emerged from being fifth-choice just within his own club will not bow to the conventional wisdom.
Just last November, although he remained on the fringes of Schmidt's plans, the fact that he had also managed to briefly usurp Cronin from the Leinster first-team had fuelled him with hope.
Especially when Cronin was himself omitted from Schmidt's November fans before returning earlier this month.
Whatever way Tracy looks at it, though, time is running out to step up the gears.
"I am building in the right direction," he admits. "Form is a weird thing, you don't have control of it necessarily.
"All you can do obviously is try your hardest and train your hardest and the rest can hopefully fall into place.
"Obviously I'm missing out on the Ireland squad and it is a big disappointment but I know myself if you want to be picked for that you have to be better than everyone else around.
"And I know myself I haven't been. The ball is in my court and I have to get everything right so that I am getting picked at Leinster first.
"If you are starting for Leinster it usually leaves you in a pretty good spot. So I need to get my ducks in a row here first and hopefully everything falls into place after that."
Form loss may be as temporary as form, he hopes; the 27-year-old just needs to find it again.
"I haven't necessarily put my finger on what would improve things at the moment. I've just got to keep the head down and hopefully it will click for me.
"I know it's in my control if I can get my stuff right. I was there before and hopefully if I can get playing like I was.
"Then I can get back in the picture but until I can get back playing like that I can't be delusional.
"I'd say I was in better playing form before, having better moments in games, more consistently than I am at the moment.
"Now the coaches have told me everything can be better, carrying, set-piece and having moments in the game."
His internal rivals certainly enjoy the big moments; try-scoring may not be his primary role but, in Cronin's case, his scoring impact has always impressed in blue or green.
Already he has notched up 13 tries for Leinster this season, about one every hour; even the emerging Bryan Byrne's five tops Tracy's three.
"It is like that with both Brian and him, both have exceptional try records as near as I can figure out.
"I think as a sports fan in general you can't not but admire Seán. I think his explosive power is what sets him apart from others athletically.
"He is as fast if not faster than most backs which is pretty unusual for a front-row forward and, yeah, he has a knack for getting over the line in fairness to him."
For now, Tracy must thrive in the shadows, starting this week against Scarlets.
"I haven't known any different," he says of being left behind with the non-Irish contingent.
"I've only played in Leinster and since I've been here, there's always been a huge contingent in the Ireland squad.
"So when those windows come around there's huge changes and because of the competition in the squad when everyone's around there's big changes week on week, it's normal for me."
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