Saturday 24 March 2018

The Big Interview: Rising star Ryan looking to make up for lost time

Young lock has gone through plenty of lows during the last 12 months but it’s been all good lately for the 21-year-old

James Ryan aims to build on earlier PRO14 interpro success at Kingspan Stadium. Photo: SPORTSFILE
James Ryan aims to build on earlier PRO14 interpro success at Kingspan Stadium. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Marcus Ó Buachalla

To get a sense of the rise of Leinster lock James Ryan you only need to look at his debut on Leinster Rugby TV nearly three years ago to the day.

It was November, 2014 to be precise and Ryan, in his capacity as Leinster U-19 captain, was joined by Leinster Clubs U-18 captain Conor Farrell to talk about their interpro titles and their hopes and aspirations for the years ahead.

With his Leaving Cert and final year in St Michael's still ahead of him, an 18-year-old Ryan stated matter of factly, "Obviously, Senior Cup this year, I'm really looking forward to that. We've got a good team so we're going to prepare as best we can."

There was certainly no Leinster Rugby senior contracts or Irish debuts on the horizon.

"No, absolutely not. I actually remember doing that piece and we filmed it down by the astro turf pitch in UCD and the senior team were training at the time.

"Conor and I had to do a few pieces to camera and the team were jogging past us at one stage. It's just mad to think that only a few seasons later I am now in here and training on that pitch with some of those same guys."

James Ryan in action against Jacques Du Plessis and Kelian Galletier of Montpellier. Photo: SPORTSFILE
James Ryan in action against Jacques Du Plessis and Kelian Galletier of Montpellier. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Looking from the outside in, was there a desire to emulate his heroes?

"Definitely. Looking at them train that day and looking at players like Cian Healy, a player that I really admired growing up, it was surreal in a way being so close and yet so far away. I had my Leaving Cert still to do, that final Senior Cup campaign with the school.

"Players like Isa Nacewa who came in the season after. If you had told me then that I would be sitting here now three years later I wouldn't have believed you."

So how does it match up? Watching your idols to training and working alongside them every day?

"It exceeded all my expectations. You only see a tiny element of what makes them great on the TV or on a day like that in UCD when I was watching them train. But to see men like Isa, day in and day out doing what they do, it's hard to describe but in Isa's case you want to follow his lead, follow his example. He is definitely a captain that leads by his actions.

"We were looking at a video there two weeks ago ahead of the Montpellier game and it was a video of key moments and Isa was in nearly every second clip. Whether it was kicking, massive hits or defensive reads or scoring tries, it was supposed to be a team video but it might as well have been an Isa tribute video."

While last season may have given Leinster supporters plenty of Isa moments, there were no James Ryan moments on the highlights reel.

A hamstring injury in November, 2016 would rule the 6ft 7in lock out for the best part of the six months.

His first season in the Leinster Academy was scuppered before it ever got going. It was a dark place but when the light began to appear at the end of the tunnel it shone bright and never really let up.

In February 2017 there was the offer of a senior Leinster contract for the former Ireland U-20 captain and then in May the email of all emails from the good folk at Lansdowne Road.

"I had never really had a long-term injury so it was a really frustrating period but then I was given such a massive boost by Leo and the rest of the coaches with that show of faith in me and giving me that first full contract. And yeah, then the email."

His face breaks into a massive smile. To take a step back there are not too many people that can say they represented their country before their province. Brian O'Driscoll is one. James Ryan is now another.

"I was upstairs and I saw an email pop in. I opened it and I lost it! I actually went nuts! Roaring about the place! It had been such a long road and a difficult journey with the injury and this was just beyond my wildest dreams.

"My dad was downstairs and he thought myself and my brother Mark were messing or fighting upstairs such was the noise so he wasn't too long behind in finding out. I then rang my uncle Aidan. He has always been such a massive influence on me, a mentor of sorts, so I wanted to share the news with him.


"After that it was time to calm down and let the news filter out to the rest of the family and then through the IRFU but it was a really special moment and losing your head like that I suppose just shows what it meant. And still means to me."

Sure enough, he joined up with his new Ireland team mates and toured USA and Japan and two touches into his debut against USA in the Red Bull Arena he would find himself touching down under the posts.

"Keith Earls has such ability and it was just a case of whether he would pop it to Luke (McGrath) or me and thankfully I got the pass and over I went.

"It made an already special day even sweeter. The whole tour was just such a brilliant learning experience for me. Being in there with that calibre of player and having missed so much of the season I just didn't want it to end."

But end it did but not before he would add a second Irish cap against Japan. Before long though he was facing into his first senior season, and was lacing up his boots again, but this time with his sights set on a Leinster debut.

"This season has gone well. Again the learning curve has been steep but I'm loving it. Obviously working with the likes of Devin (Toner) and Mick (Kearney), Ross (Molony) and Ian (Nagle) but now as well with the arrival of Scott (Fardy).

"I have really enjoyed getting his take on things. An outside opinion of how we do things and how I do things. You can't help but improve when you are surrounded by players of their quality. I'm loving it."

He now has four caps to his name in Leinster blue, including a first European start against the French giants Montpellier, but this weekend he has his eyes on the old stomping ground of another childhood hero.

"I've never played in the Kingspan Stadium but I would have looked at Ulster games growing up and Stephen Ferris in particular. The physicality that he brought to the games, I loved watching him play. And you can still see that to this day in how Ulster play. They play with a confidence at home with the support behind them. It's a game that we need to be ready for and one that I'm looking forward to."

Irish Independent

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