Saturday 19 October 2019

Made-man Ryan still picking up the pieces after fallout from loss to Japan

James Ryan is focused on Samoa, where victory will yield a quarter-final place. Photo: Sportsfile
James Ryan is focused on Samoa, where victory will yield a quarter-final place. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Without any fanfare, James Ryan took another step on what looks like an inevitable journey towards the Ireland captaincy last summer when Joe Schmidt tapped him on the shoulder and brought him into his inner sanctum.

At 23, he is the youngest member of Ireland's leadership group at this World Cup. A made man at a table where most of his counterparts are in their 30s and going grey at the temples - if they have any hair at all.

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Right now, even during this weekend off in Hakata, the senior men are plotting a route out of their World Cup malaise. Over dinner and drinks on Friday night, while watching yesterday's games or as they make their way to the beach today to unwind and relax, conversations will be happening about the little details needed to arrest the slide in form.

Ryan will be at the heart of the solutions. First capped in the summer of 2017, the St Michael's College graduate came to the international game fully formed, but off the pitch we have watched him grow into a quietly impressive speaker.

A serious young man, he doesn't do fluff and won't get drawn into places he doesn't want to go. He's happy to share the news of his ascension to the leadership group, but he's not about to tell us what's involved.

"I am yeah," he says with a shrug when asked if he's been made.

Since the World Cup began, we probe?

"From the summer, really," comes the response.

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An amazing achievement at 23, we suggest.

"23, yeah," comes the response.

So, how comfortable are you in that role?

"Yeah, yeah. I'm just kind of learning from some super leaders there like Besty (Rory Best) and Johnny (Sexton). Guys that lead in different ways so it's great to get an insight into where they are thinking and all that."

And that's all we're getting out of him. He's not about to reveal the secrets of the inner realm. He recognises the achievement, there's not many who have risen so high, so young.

To this UCD student of history, the future is all that matters and after losing to Japan and struggling past Russia, the next job is finding form, and quickly.

He is more expansive when discussing the performance against Japan, a career low in a world of highs.

It was noticeable that Ryan, whose face is normally a mask of determination and focus, became quite emotional at full-time when a deeply frustrating 80 minutes came to an end.

Japan were bigger and more physical than when Ryan played them two years previously, but that was no excuse.

"I've had some big losses, some very big losses - Saracens in the European final is obviously another one," Ryan says. "I think, with just the nature of the World Cup, you have to turn the page pretty quickly. Even when we came in, we had an honest review but the process pretty rapidly turned to Russia.

"They were probably more physical than when I remembered. I don't think the tempo and the speed of thought and everything was miles apart, but I think they were more physical, yeah.

"It was a tough game but we've had tough games before and I think what let us down was the basics, you know? The higher the level, the more the basics count. I don't think our basics were good enough and we've looked at that. I think that, combined with our discipline, gave them scores."

The conditions in Japan have been trying so far; Ryan lost three kilos in the Japan game and has had to change his jersey at half-time in both his games so far.

The humidity in Fukuroi was a month-high for the city and the closeness clearly got to Ireland, who did a week's warm-weather training in Portugal and tried to introduce strategies in pre-season to prepare them.

But beneath the roof at the Kobe Misaki Stadium on Thursday, things were even worse, according to those who played.

"I'm even changing my jersey at half-time and I've never done that before," Ryan explains. "The lads were saying on Thursday that their jerseys were soaked. Lukey (McGrath) was telling me the ball was a bar of soap. Even though it's not raining, the conditions are so humid.

"I wasn't even playing (against Russia) and it felt like a greenhouse when I walked into it. So yeah, there's those environmental challenges I suppose, but I think we're getting to be able to deal with them a bit better now.

"The jerseys are so heavy and stuff. We were training a lot over the summer with bin-bags under our jerseys to get us used to that sweat exposure.

"Since we've got here we haven't done any of that because you don't really need to. Then, we've a variety of cooling strategies. When you come in after training, you put the ice bags on your neck. That cools you down quicker.

"Cold towels on your forearms. There's a bin there, full of ice, and you put your forearms into it and it's supposed to cool down your core temperature quickly. So strategies like that. Slushies as well - literally like a slush-puppy. Cools down your core temperature quicker than cool water would. Little things like that certainly make a difference."

It's set to get cooler in the next 12 days but the heat is on this team as the criticism mounts on the back of a series of disappointing performances.

On a social level, Ryan's role within the squad involves finding Chinese restaurants in every new city, while he also shares the role of team DJ with Cian Healy. He enjoys the lighter side, but he's serious about where Ireland are headed in this tournament.

"The big thing (after losing to Japan) was 'we've got to turn the page quickly here, lads' because if we get two wins in the next two games then we're playing in a quarter-final, that's where we need to be, so there wasn't too long a time to kind of dwell on things," he says.

"We got five points on Thursday and we're not trying to be super positive. There's definitely things we can work on but it's job done. It's all about Samoa now and if we get a win this week, we're into a quarter-final and that's where we want to be. The weekend now gives us the opportunity to unwind a bit and kind of enjoy the culture and all that. Then, on Monday, we'll try to get things back on track."

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