James Ryan has been blown away by the level of support that Ireland have received at the Rugby World Cup, from their team base in Tours to Bordeaux, Nantes and now on to Paris.
Ireland fans have travelled in huge numbers to France, from both home and abroad, bringing an infectious mix of colour, noise and passion to the team’s opening two pool matches against Romania and Tonga.
60,000 Irish households registered with World Rugby for RWC 2023 tickets, and with an anticipated 30,000 supporters set to back Andy Farrell’s men at the Stade de France on Saturday, Ryan cannot wait to play in such an atmosphere.
“The support is just crazy. The colour as well, walking around. I mean…the expectation and level of support this weekend is going to be unbelievable,” said the Ireland second row, who is looking forward to locking horns with Pool B rivals South Africa.
“It feels different from a lot of Six Nations games, not all Six Nations games because we do get great atmospheres there as well, but it does feel different.
“I think the colour is a big thing. Everyone is wearing green, I think that contributes to the atmosphere. Nobody leaves. You’re walking around after and nobody has left their seats. It’s cool.
“People seem to come from all corners of the globe for a World Cup. It’s just something Irish people do. We were walking around after the Tonga game and we were like, ‘this is mad stuff!’
“It’s unbelievable. I’ve been watching the World Cup on TV and Wales get good support as well, but I think there are very few countries that match the level of support we get.”
It is never lost on the Ireland players and coaches the many sacrifices that the fans make to follow the team at away matches or a big tournament like the World Cup. It makes them even more eager to give those in the stands something to cheer about.
The crowd at the Saint-Denis ground should be in for a treat as the world’s top two ranked teams go head to head. No matter the result, history will be made as this is the first ever World Cup meeting of Ireland and South Africa, and the first time they have played each other at a neutral venue.
It is a stadium that Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton has some fond memories of, most notably when kicking the match-winning drop goal against France at the start of the 2018 Grand Slam-winning run. He also won the Six Nations title there four years previously.
Acknowledging what a boost it is to have the supporters in full voice in the French capital, Sexton said: “It’s usually the French fans that make the atmosphere there, but hopefully we’ll have the majority of the support on Saturday.
“It’s rumoured there will be 30,000 Irish fans there and the support we get for World Cups in particular is incredible. Last week there was Irish green everywhere and the same the week before.
“I’m sure it will be the same again. Hats off to the people who put their hands in their pockets and come over. It means a lot to us and hopefully we’ll give them something to cheer about.”
Ryan and Sexton are two of the 11 players retained from the team that beat the Springboks 19-16 at the Aviva Stadium last November. Ronan Kelleher, Jamison-Gibson Park, Bundee Aki and James Lowe come into the starting XV this time.
Going from playing two of the World Cup’s lower-ranked sides to tackling the reigning champions is ‘obviously a big step up’ according to Ryan, but it is one that the group is relishing as the battle for quarter-final places intensifies.
Something that the 27-year-old Dubliner has been getting more accustomed to is later kick-off times. Ireland have the 9pm (local time) slot for their games against Tonga, South Africa and Scotland, and it will be the same start time if they reach the quarter-finals and beyond.
He gave an insight into how he copes with the longer lead-in time, saying: “I actually didn’t mind it (the later kick-off against Tonga) at all. I tried to sleep in for as long as I could. I probably go to bed a little bit later on the Friday night, just because you know the game is so late on Saturday night.
“But I was okay with it. I think the Samoan (warm-up) game probably helped as well. So, hopefully this week, it will be a bit easier for us as a group to get around it.”
Having passed the 50-cap mark earlier this year and captained his country eight times to date, Ryan knows exactly what works best for him in terms of preparation and managing himself during the build-up to such a crunch clash.
He tries to stay as relaxed as possible, with The 1975 a popular choice on his pre-match playlist as they are ‘nice and mellow’ and do not tip him ‘overboard’. ‘Match mode’ is a gradual process, and in the words of Paul O’Connell, ‘Trust in our good habits. A lot of the work is done’.
“Nervous energy can be kind of wasted energy so you want to get the balance right but making sure you are conserving that energy. So do your preparation but try and kind of chill out as much as you can so you can get to the stadium and then you feel you’re in match mode then.”
As Ireland’s chief lineout caller, Ryan was pleased with a much-improved performance in that area against Tonga. They brought their lineout success rate at this World Cup up to 82.9%, with the Springboks on 89.7% after two rounds.
Ireland hold the better scrum success rate (100%) and gain-line forward percentage (55.4%), whereas the ‘Boks stand at 84.6% and 51.4% respectively, in those two categories.
Jacques Nienaber’s men welcome back lynchpin lock Eben Etzebeth from the shoulder injury he sustained during their 18-3 victory over Scotland. Ryan knows all about the Sharks enforcer and how important a player he is for the ‘Boks.
“He’s one of the best locks in the world, definitely, without doubt. He’s pretty much the complete second row,” said the man known as ‘Cheese’ to his team-mates. Ryan’s nickname, started by Max Deegan, comes from a character called ‘Big Cheese’ in the movie, ‘Why Him?’.
“He (Etzebeth) has got a good work-rate, (he’s) a good set-piece player, very good in the air in terms of lineout defence, a great feel for the game. A huge player for them.
“You’ve obviously got huge respect for them but I think big games are about making sure you impose yourself on the game.
“Respect them and understand their strengths and everything, but you’ve got to bring it back to yourself and making sure you get all your bits right so that you can put in a good account of yourself.”