Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'If Ryan can win line-out duel with Retallick, Ireland will be in pole position'
They say you should never meet your heroes. Tomorrow at the Aviva Stadium, James Ryan won't just get to meet Brodie Retallick; his challenge is to match and, perhaps, better the world's best second-row.
Along with Eben Etzebeth, Ryan pinpointed the 2014 World Player of the Year as the second-row he most admired when coming through the ranks. Retallick is only five years older than the man wearing the No 5 jersey for Ireland, but he has been operating on this stage since his debut against Ireland in 2012 when Ryan was just 15.
Last weekend, the All Black served a reminder of his class by dominating England's lineout ball at Twickenham during the second half of an absorbing battle. It was a reminder that the fundamentals of his game are excellent, because the Hollywood moments so often grab the headlines. Few locks have possessed Retallick's range of skills.
Tomorrow, he and Sam Whitelock become the second-row pairing to have played together most in the famous black jersey and their presence is perhaps more important to the team than any other pair.
In Chicago, their absence gave Ireland a window into the game that they took with relish. Patrick Tuipulotu and an out-of-position Jerome Kaino simply weren't able to produce the supply of possession New Zealand need to thrive on.
Last week, Ireland were served a reminder of what life is like when your lineout doesn't function and the All Blacks will apply huge pressure to Rory Best's throw.
That's the main reason Devin Toner has been recalled to the team, but it is a mark of Ryan's progress after just a year of top-class rugby that his place in the team was never in question. Man of the match last week, Ryan combines tidy set-piece work with a carrying game that has become central to Ireland's ability to get on the front foot.
"It's incredible to watch really, I love watching him carrying the ball," Paul O'Connell said of the 22-year-old this week.
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"It's just the tiniest little bit of subtlety with his feet, late footwork I suppose you'd call it. It's great to have a guy that can carry ball in tight, having to get you over the gain-line like that because it's not an easy thing to do, you know? I know CJ (Stander) does it really well. He keeps showing up and he does it relentlessly, but the subtlety that James Ryan has is amazing."
So far, Ryan has taken every step up going and he came out much the better of his two meetings with Maro Itoje last season.
Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell believes he has come on in leaps and bounds since his Six Nations debut.
"It was a big game for him, France away. That is a big test for any second-row, especially a young boy coming in making his debut," he said. "He had a few doubts that week. He overcame them and he was himself on the day. From that day, he has grown from strength to strength. He backs himself.
"He makes sure he has put his own game out there. That's what I admire most about him."
The biggest development in the game in recent years has been the move towards using forwards as playmakers and, as ever, New Zealand led the charge. Retallick was at the vanguard of the movement, displaying rare gifts with ball in hand that bely his hulking 6ft 8ins, 19st 5lbs frame and dodgy mullet. Not that he doesn't do the nuts and bolts work well. He's tough as nails.
"You look at Brodie Retallick and you see an enforcer as far as the New Zealand pack is concerned," Farrell said. "It isn't just that either. He's got good sleight of hand, holds width well, has got good feel on the ball.
"He's actually got good feet that people underestimate and, for a big man, he's really good over the ball.
Almost the same height, Ryan has not yet filled his frame in the same way his former idol does but that will come with time. With the prize of finishing 2018 as the world's best team on the line and possession at the very heart of tomorrow's battle, the big men will have a large say in how this one goes.
Along with their partners Toner and Whitelock, Ryan and Retallick's ability to secure the ball out of touch will be key, while their contribution to the scrum and breakdown effort should not be overlooked.
But it is their influence around the park that may hold the key to victory as these prototype modern second-rows get to showcase their all-round game on the biggest stage.
Right now, Retallick is the main man and deservedly so. Ryan has his eyes on that prize and the talent to go and get it in the next couple of seasons. Tomorrow is just the start.
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