Why Ryan James is Blues’ most valuable despite not playing a minute
Why are NSW on the cusp of an Origin clean sweep over Queensland? Because of Ryan James, the player who wont play a single minute of the series.
The Titans prop is everything coach Brad Fittler has wanted in a player: selfless, me-last, team-first. Hes as responsible for their success as James Maloney, Boyd Cordner, Latrell Mitchell. Even Ben Hunt.
“They are the players who define your team,” Fittler says. “It goes back to when I coached City Origin for the first time many years ago and Wade Graham was the 18th man. I said, Mate, we will be gauged by your energy. He was the most energetic all week. We won — and he went on to play for Australia and NSW.”
As the Blues players made their way out onto the field at Suncorp Stadium late on Tuesday afternoon for their captains run, the awaiting media knocked each other out of the way for one last word from the headline players.
James walked out of the tunnel and off to the side, making his way over to the coaching staff for a brief chat. He seemed puzzled to see my tape recorder under his nose. Um, mate … You know Im not playing?
“Everyone around me wants me to play, and I want to play,” James says. “But you cant be bitter.”
Even when others would. When others would throw their toys out of the cot. When theyd complain to their coach, their manager, their social media followers. Or whinge in a podcast.
No, theres no room for players of that ilk in Fittlers side this year. And its why theyve won the series and why the clean sweep beckons on Wednesday night on Queenslands sacred turf.
Its why James didnt complain when he was picked in Fittlers squad for game one, flew back to the Gold Coast to get his gear, packed his bags and then as he drove to the airport was told to turn around and go home because theyd picked David Klemmer at the last minute.
Instead, James watched Origin I on TV at home with some of his Titans teammates, eating pizza and cheering like the rest of us slobs.
“I know he was really devastated by that,” Titans coach Garth Brennan says. “That rocked him hard. But as soon as Freddy spoke to him, he moved on. I dont know how many wouldve handled it like Ryan did. And then he came out and was our best player on the park. At no stage has he let the Titans be the victim of his disappointment.”
James was then named in the squad for game two and considered a certainty to replace Reagan Campbell-Gillard when the Penrith prop suffered a broken jaw while playing against the Roosters.
Then Fittler dropped a bombshell: Sharks veteran Matt Prior was in. James would be 18th man, again left out in the cold.
“Here, mate,” James said to Prior, selflessly handing over this allocation of tickets for family and friends. “Youll need these more than me.”
“Anyone would do the same in this team,” James reckons when I raise it with him.
The weekend before, hed been interviewed after the Titans win over the Bulldogs when, according to Brennan, “he took his game again to another level” despite the disappointment of being overlooked for NSW.
“Do you want to play in Origin?” James was asked by a reporter.
“I just want them to win, I just want NSW to win a series,” he replied. “If I get a run, thatd be lovely.”
It struck a chord with former NSW coach Phil Gould, who said: “Id have picked him on the interview. Thats the sort of bloke you want in the team.”
And then it came to game three, with the series locked away but still with so much to play for.
When Tariq Sims was named in the starting 17, it was a triumph for persistence because hed been the 18th man in the past, too.
But James head didnt go down. No toys were thrown. He still wanted to be a part of it.
He was given the chance to go back to the Titans early. “No way,” he told the Blues coaching staff. “I want to be a part of this.”
On Friday, in a field session at Coogee Oval, he trained like he was about to play in the biggest match of his life, even though he knew he wasnt.
“He just didnt stop,” Blues performance coach Hayden Knowles recalls.
This is the house that Fittler and those around him have built. Me-last. Team-first.
In the NSW dressing-room after the game-one win at the MCG, the coach made some pointed comments about what had been achieved — and what needed to be done in the next match in Sydney.
But before the cans of beer were cracked open, he had one more thing to say.
“The best performed player this week has been Tariq Sims, our 18th man,” Fittler said.
If NSW complete the clean sweep, you can already hear the coach saying something similar about Ryan James, the Blues most important player yet to play a minute.
Chief Sports Writer, The Sydney Morning Herald
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