Ireland second-row praises new sense of identity in Andy Farrell’s camp ahead of crunch Six Nations opener
We have been told Netflix have access all areas during this Six Nations championship but, for James Ryan, there is one place that must remain sacrosanct.
Not the dressing-room, that most sacred of inner sanctums, but somewhere far from the madding crowd, beyond the lights and the noise of the sporting theatre which begins in Cardiff this afternoon.
“There’s a vending machine in our team hotel, below minus one, it’s a bit of a secret,” Ryan reveals conspiratorially, without realising many will now know.
“Myself and a few of the boys go down there to chill out and have a chat.”
The media have no longer any reason to visit Carton House, the team’s plush Kildare base, since they re-located training to the Sport Ireland campus in Abbotstown.
But even though many of us would have recalled the games room on minus one, and espied that as a discreet hiding place for the team, none of us ever suspected there was yet another refuge secreted beneath.
At the beginning of a momentous 2023 for Ryan and his Ireland, it is perhaps a good thing to be reminded that, even though the whole world knows they are the No 1 team in the world, they still have a few surprises up their short-sleeved green jerseys.
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Perspective didn’t need to be hidden away in Portugal this week as Andy Farrell’s men limbered up for the opening assignment of their Six Nations.
Blue skies, a bluer ocean and smiling faces before the serious business of international fare resumes.
A happy camp doesn’t guarantee a winning team but the growing evidence of this collective is confirming the clumsy thesis.
It has occasionally endorsed another clunk theory, one that suggests that Joe Schmidt, Farrell’s widely admired predecessor, operated a regime that was a sporting equivalent of Guantanamo Bay.
“I don’t think there’s a massive difference,” disputes Ryan, an immense second-row who has emerged as one of the globe’s leading lighthouses.
“The last camp wasn’t Guantanamo Bay. There are a lot of similarities to Joe. Paul O’Connell has come in and a lot of his messages and the way he looks at the game is very like Joe at the ruck.
“Mike Catt then with strike plays and designing them, which was one of Joe’s strengths, tearing teams apart from the first couple of phases.
“It is a very enjoyable camp to be in. A big part of that is when you’re winning and doing well and everyone is enjoying it. It’s no secret.”
And yet, as Ryan subtly suggests, perhaps a greater leniency on behalf of Farrell to allow individuality seek expression.
“A big thing he drives is for everyone to be yourself all the time. So everybody feels part of it, that they have a point of view and they can express it.
“And I think when you have an environment like that, that can only be a good thing because you’re getting 30 or 40 guys turning up every day comfortable in their own skin trying to attack every day.”
Ryan attacks each one with as much relish now as he did in his youth; it is five years now since his almost languid excellence achieved lift-off in the Grand Slam of 2018, a year then heightened by a tour victory in Australia and a double trophy win with Leinster.
He was the man who didn’t know how to lose until Rob Kearney reminded him that there will be days when he will. He has lost form too, even if only rarely, and has had too much time thieved by concussions and other injuries.
“I remember I was listening to Rob but I didn’t hear him. I didn’t understand what he meant. What was going to be different about the next year? Or the year after? In my head I couldn’t see it. Now I know what he means.
“We have had plenty of days when we haven’t been successful, when things haven’t gone our way. I’ve a much better appreciation of how hard it is to win silverware.
“And then I cherish them now, because I value them more as a 26-year-old compared to being a 21-year-old. That’s how I look at things differently.”
Perspective, his abiding ally.
He could see it in the teary eyes of his namesake, Charlie, another Leinster schoolboy prodigy, and a second-row to boot, who stepped in front of the squad last October to confirm that, at just 23, he would never play professional rugby again.
The greatest tribute he can ever pay his good friend is to be as true to his own outstanding gifts as is healthily possible.
“It was terrible. I’d seen him slogging away in the gym rehabbing in the mornings and the afternoons for the guts of two or three years. It is a ruthless business at times. There’s been a number now.
“It’s the nature of the game. It’s as tough a game as it has ever been. These things are going to happen which is sad. But it’s the reality at the moment.
“Then when James Tracy retired, it did really hit home a bit, definitely, that, you know what, I should really appreciate the position I’m in and really cherish these days.
“Your rugby career isn’t going to last forever, professional sport is very fickle. So you make the most of the time you do have.
“So you narrow the lens a bit in trying to chase being as successful as you’re possible while you are playing.
“Because this is what I want to be doing every week. And we’re very lucky to be here. It definitely gives you perspective and to appreciate what you do a little more. It makes you sit back and be grateful.”
As much as it may seem uncomfortable at times, gratitude demands responsibility too.
Ryan is just one cog in a Leinster Rugby organisation that, however unwittingly, re-awakened painful wounds when the club presided over the playing of the Wolfe Tones’ ‘Celtic Symphony’, including its “up the Ra” chant, after a Connacht victory in the RDS last month.
The opprobrium that rained down on the Irish women’s soccer team eluded Ryan’s club; it should not have, nor should a fellow international of Ryan’s have been allowed to glibly sympathise with social media posts from the Wolfe Tones criticising the furore.
Today, clad in green, Ryan and his colleagues, from north and south, will sing a song chosen specifically because it is inclusive, not divisive.
As a student of history, and a grandson of an Easter Rising rebel, a founder member of Fianna Fáil and the Irish Volunteers, he more than anyone recognises the deep symbolism of an Irish rugby shirt.
“The Irish rugby jersey is a unique jersey. I don’t think there is a jersey like it in world rugby. The Irish rugby team has been able to do things that no competition has ever been able to do.
“It’s been able to draw people from all corners of the island, different beliefs, backgrounds, sections of society. They’ve all played under one green jersey. You think of the times on the island where things were very troubled, particularly in the north. But the Irish rugby team was the one thing that persisted in solidarity throughout.
“So I think the Irish rugby team is very unique. And so is its jersey. And I don’t feel we even draw upon that face enough. That is what is special about it. And that is why playing for Ireland is so special.”
Unfortunately, he refuses to directly address what happened in the RDS, however inadvertent, aside from agreeing that it was a disappointing mis-step for an organisation that prides itself on its diversity.
“Yes, as you would have read, Leinster did launch their own investigation alongside the URC so that matter has been handled so I don’t want to get too much into it.”
For all the turmoil outside the sport, within this Ireland team there is only tranquillity, even if there are concerns about out-half and propping depth.
“We fared pretty well against South Africa,” he counters. “But we can’t be complacent. We need to keep driving that set-piece.
“Every season we’ve added another layer to our game. We’re in a good spot, we’re very settled, but we have to keep getting better.
“You see the other new coaches, sometimes a lot of teams tend to up their game with a new voice coming in and new ideas.
“So all these teams will have improved so the responsibility is on us to get better. And the Six Nations is a great place to test where you are at.”
He likes the serenity but some disruption would not go amiss, if only to keep them all on their toes.
“Sometimes it’s good when things are a little off-kilter. Especially in a week leading up to a game. Because you can flip it. Look, there’s a bit of turbulence here. It’s a challenge.”
James Ryan is prepared to meet them all.