Wednesday 18 September 2019

Comment: James Ryan could be totemic talisman to launch new era of greatness

Leinster lock already ahead of time in bid to some day surpass the great Paul O'Connell

James Ryan is embraced by Jamison Gibson-Park and Johnny Sexton after the final whistle. Photo: Sportsfile
James Ryan is embraced by Jamison Gibson-Park and Johnny Sexton after the final whistle. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Twenty-one games and 21 years old and alive-alive-oh.

The 'oh' also stands for: 'Oh Lord, how good is this kid?'

James Ryan's winning streak continues, as does his pre-eminence among peers. What he is achieving is already historic.

Now, one might even suggest, it prompts recognition that true greatness walks among this sport, accompanied by that swaggering, self-assured sense of authority as he prowled the slowly saturating turf before a gripping final.

The intent to dominate is already sown deep within. Ryan is the giant whose shoulders cast the guiding shadows for others to follow.

Even though they may not have needed his intervention in those final moments, he was still there, soaring through the air and reaching skywards to thwart Remi Tales' drop goal effort, though the kick was always missing its target.

Rarely can the same be said for the colossus that is Ryan.

Few can attain such heights in stealing a crucial lineout throw here, or stoop so low to conquer by felling opposition behemoths there.

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Then there's the 'chop tackle', propelling himself like a ground-launched cruise missile, his quarries felled to the floor like 200-year-old oaks.


It seems like only a week ago that Joe Schmidt's hurrying quest to launch his career accelerated when he played for a Munster development side beneath the watchful eyes of someone whose own playing career we assumed would never be matched.

Paul O'Connell's retirement once seemed to signify the end of an era; who now, though, could deny the once treasonous suggestion that his qualities could be discovered in another?

At 21 O'Connell had not yet even made his Munster debut; when he did so, it took him another five years to conquer Europe, four more to push his country to do the same.

Ryan, even now, has already completed a Grand Slam campaign and a European title-winning season without blemish; soon, perhaps, a unique double may beckon for his club.

A summer series win in Australia, a professional first for the country, may then follow. Not so much a coming of age but a wonder of it.

As he scampered from the pitch into the dressing-room, skipping past the puddles of water, it surprised us that he didn't simply walk on them.

"He's decent alright, isn't he?" laughs Sean Cronin, in awe as much as genuine appreciation.

Luke McGrath, in his fifth year at that St Michael's hothouse on the Merrion Road, remembers him dominating school corridors, and Ryan a mere pup of the second year. "He's a freak," he says.

Ryan will suffer defeat soon; life cannot be lived that way forever. But, in the same remorseless manner he seemed to treat Saturday's business as some of us mere mortals approach a routine afternoon of grocery shopping, he will simply plough on.

"Eventually he'll lose a game," reasons Cian Healy. "Then we'll pick him up, dust him off and send him out again."

Ryan symbolises how Leinster rediscovered what they needed to be to resume their status as champions.

The old lead the young and the young lead the old. Once you want to win and do all it takes to win, you're in.

Bilbao represents a resumption of that winning culture.

Ryan's dominance makes it easy to forget that his emergence was not without speed bumps.

"It was the hope at the start of last season that he would come through and then he was away with UCD and he had that hamstring and we were ultra-cautious in trying to manage him back from that," says Leo Cullen.

"When do we do it? Then he starts for Ireland before Leinster! Such an unusual thing. Clearly he is one that has been earmarked for a long time.

"He is a great pro already, he is a wise head as well. He has good family support around him, which is important.

"He takes everything in his stride. It is a pretty remarkable story."

Cian Healy was there for the early reels.

"When I first saw him in Clontarf he was a string bean," recalls Healy.

"He was skinny, he was tall, and he was talented.

"But you never know. It's how people step up. When you saw him step up to the plate it was jaw-dropping. You say hold on a second, he doesn't look like he can do what he's doing. It's class."

And he was still able to peak this late in the season when the presumption would be that he might flag. He did not compensate one aspect of his game for the other; one piece of continuity handling in the Somme-like advances of the second-half defied the naked eye.

"It's no surprise," claims Cullen. "Not when you see him every day. Bloody hell, the numbers he is able to deliver on a regular basis - training or games. There is what you see and then you get all the different reports about the game.

"We are lucky to have him. He is a special talent. It is just important to manage him because the big thing is you want guys who can play for Leinster and Ireland for a long time."

McGrath just puffs his cheeks in wonder as he recalls an image from innocent youth.

"I just realised yesterday, when I was in sixth year he was in second year. I remember seeing him in school and knowing he was going to be some player. He was playing eight in the Junior Cup.

"He moved to second row as he got older, but he's incredible. He's got a special mindset. Incredibly determined.

"He's some player. Almost an extra back row out there. To have that physical presence at such a young age, he's got an incredibly bright future."

Were it not for his beating pulse, Ryan almost represents the perfect prototype were it possible to manufacture a rugby player.

"You're looking at him and he just gets it," says Cronin. "What Joe is looking for, what Stuart and Leo are looking for."

The heartbeat of the new dynasty.

"He's spoken about so much and that tells a lot about the character he is," Healy outlines. "He's just blended in and dragged people together. There's a few of them. Young names don't always pop up as such an influence. But these ones do."

Ryan's was writ large upon this day.

"He's going on and on and on," reckons Healy.

For Cronin, the genius is in its simplicity: "He just gets rugby."

Quite a lot of people, one suspects, dearly hope he doesn't relax his vice-like grip on the game for some time to come.

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