Titans prop Ryan James looks set to build on his breakout year in 2013. Credit: NRL Photos Copyright: NRL Photos
On a day built for light-stepping outside backs, the performance of prop Ryan James at the opening Titans training session of the year gave coach John Cartwright further belief that the 22-year-old is ready for the rigours of State of Origin football.
In 34-degree heat and stifling humidity, Titans players endured a gruelling two-hour field session that included a two-kilometre time trial, a contact session and plenty of laps up and down the field. Young recruit Christian Hazard and fellow new boy Kalifa Fai Fai Loa impressed up the front of the pack but not far behind was 194-centimetre, 121-kilogram James.
Having played 21 NRL games over three injury-interrupted seasons prior to 2013, James' 22 games last year saw him elevated to a starting spot at the Titans for the final six weeks of the season and his performances against the likes of Canterbury, North Queensland, Sydney Roosters and Melbourne drew this high praise from Cartwright: "The way he finished the season I thought he was probably the form front-rower of the whole NRL," Cartwright said.
"We played some pretty tough sides and no one got the better of him and I thought he got on top of a few of them.
"He finished the year great, he's had a full off-season and he's had those 50-odd first grade games now so I think he's ready to go another level."
An Indigenous All Stars representative in 2011 and 2013, James made his debut for Country Origin last year and went on to represent the Prime Minister's XIII in Papua New Guinea last September.
Blues coach Laurie Daley was forced to use a different starting front row in each of the three Origin clashes last year and the aggressive style of James' play could be the key ingredient in breaking Queensland's eight-year stranglehold on the interstate arena.
While smaller men struggled in the heat on Monday, the way James powered through is testament to his growing maturity, says Cartwright.
"We forget how young he is because he made his debut pretty early for a front-rower and he's just maturing all the time," he said.
"He's got some great fellas in his position at the club too and he's got great blokes to learn from but more importantly he's the sort of guy that will learn. He's always open to improving himself and he's in great shape.
"He had probably his first full off-season – I don't think he missed any time through the pre-Christmas period – and he's come back in really good shape. His weight's where you need it to be and he's still maturing into his body. His body shape has changed again this off-season so the best is in front of him."
World Cup stars Greg Bird and Nate Myles are due back at training next week while Dave Taylor, Albert Kelly and Jamal Idris all missed the field session. A nagging calf complaint is confining Taylor to hours in the club's altitude chamber while the medical staff are carefully monitoring an infection in one of the veins in Kelly's left foot.
"He had some more injections in it yesterday and we just want to make sure he's right," said Cartwright. "There's no point if we train him and set him back another couple of weeks. When he's 100 per cent we'll get him back out on the field."