Thursday 13 December 2018

Unstoppable James Ryan shows no signs of slowing in stunning unbeaten run

Leinster's James Ryan. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster's James Ryan. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

A year ago on Sunday, the Ireland U-20s took on a Munster development side in a warm-up fixture for their World Cup campaign at Thomond Park.

Just before kick-off, the home team announced a late and very unusual change as they included a Leinster second-row in their starting XV.

James Ryan finished on the losing side that day, but that is a feeling that he has long forgotten by now.

He was jokingly reminded of the outing in Munster colours - albeit their blue change-strip - before he collected the young player of the year award at Leinster's gala dinner last month, but it is now a quirky footnote in the fastest rise to success we've seen in Irish rugby since Brian O'Driscoll.

The appearance for Munster was a favour to Joe Schmidt who wanted to bring the 2016 U-20s captain on the summer tour, despite his missing almost the entire 2016/'17 season with a serious hamstring injury.

He got through the shift in Limerick and boarded the plane to New Jersey where he was named on the bench to face the United States.

Introduced in the 61st minute, he scored a try with his first touch and a fairytale career was born.

Three hundred and sixty four days after that cameo in the Munster shirt, Ryan will play his 20th senior game for club and country tomorrow and if he continues his unbeaten run, he will have added a Champions Cup medal to his Grand Slam.

Schmidt brushed off comparisons with England's Maro Itoje, and there are substantial differences between how they play the game, but the 21-year-old has started his career on the same trajectory and if the Lions were travelling south this season he would definitely be on the plane.

Such has been his impact since making his Leinster debut on the first day of the season against the Dragons in Newport.

Usually a player does a long stint in the Guinness PRO14 before ascending the ranks, but Ryan has skipped the steps.

He has eight caps for Ireland, five of which are starts. Seven of his Leinster appearances have come in the Champions Cup (four starts), while just four (three starts) have come in the domestic competition.

Injury has played a role in that number, but he has also been carefully managed as if he were one of the senior men.

Schmidt first spotted him playing for Leinster schools as a 16-year-old and has identified him as a young man worthy of the fast-track approach.

Injury halted his march last season, but it allowed him put on 5kg of bulk while rehabilitating his blown hamstring.

As he worked out alongside the youngster, veteran lock Mike McCarthy knew the gig was up.

"I remember being injured in the gym, I didn't play much last season with injuries, and James Ryan was injured with a hamstring injury and he had a big frame - 6ft 8ins - but he needed to bulk up a bit," he said earlier this year.

"Speaking to Greg Feek, he's put on like 5kgs in the last year and he looks really big. He really wants to learn. Whatever I could offer him, I'm not sure what it was, but I remember him asking me about sacking mauls once and maybe that's one area I was not too bad at.

"He asks questions, he's always looking to improve and he led the U-20s to second place (in the World Cup), so he's got those leadership qualities.

"People are talking about is he the next Paul O'Connell, and you can see he's got the leadership there as well.

"I played in the (Six Nations) game against France two years ago and I think I had two ball-carries. He's doing maybe 17 ball-carries, so maybe that's the difference between a modern-day second-row and an old second-row. He has a bright future ahead of him."

Away from the field, Ryan is slowly coming out of his shell but he retains a Peter O'Mahony-style serious persona in front of the cameras.

His team-mates, Dan Leavy in particular, have been trying to draw him out - handing him a nickname 'The Big Cheese' and claiming he asked them to use it.

Memories

Although a student of history (and politics) in UCD, his rugby memories only go back so far.

Last month, he was asked which second-row players inspired him growing up and he came up with 26-year-olds Brodie Retallick and Eben Etzebeth.

Paul O'Connell must seem like an ancient figure from the past, never mind John Eales or Martin Johnson.

It is not ridiculous to think that he can join Retallick, Etzebeth and Itoje as the dominant second-rows of his age, however. Indeed, he is already 2-0 up on the English lock who looks like he needs a break after his Lions performances.

He is very much a prototype modern second-row, but his rise is underpinned by a lack of ego and old-fashioned values. And a relentless desire to win.

"It's a bit jammy to be honest," he said of his run. "No, it's not important to me. To be honest, I don't even normally think about it. It's been mentioned a few times but no, it's not something that's at the forefront of my mind." The one indulgence he allows himself is the now familiar captain's salute with his fellow St Michael's man Leavy in the aftermath of victory.

Leinster fans will hope to see the duo stand to attention at around 7pm tomorrow in Bilbao.

Ryan, it seems, knows of no other way to finish a game.

The Ryan line - lock's 19-game winning run

1. USA 19 Ireland 55, New Jersey, June 10, 2017 (replacement, 19 mins, scored try)

2. Japan 13 Ireland 35, Tokyo, June 24, 2017 (replacement, 28 mins)

3. Dragons 16 Leinster 39, Rodney Parade, Sep 2, 2017 (replacement, 21 mins)

4. Southern Kings 10 Leinster 31, Port Elizabeth, Sept 16, 2017 (starter, 80 mins)

5. Leinster 24 Montpellier 17, RDS, Oct 14, 2017 (starter, 64 mins)

6. Glasgow Warriors 18 Leinster 34, Scotstoun, Oct 21, 2017 (replacement, 25 mins)

7. Ulster 10 Leinster 25, Kingspan, Oct 28, 2017 (starter, 12 mins, HIA)

8. Ireland 38 South Africa 3, Aviva, Nov 11, 2017 (replacement, 9 mins)

9. Ireland 28 Argentina 19, Aviva, Nov 25, 2017 (starter 49 mins)

10. Leinster 22 Exeter Chiefs 17, Dec 16, 2017 (replacement, 24 mins)

11. Munster 24 Leinster 34, Thomond Park, Dec 26, 2017 (starter, 46 mins)

12. Leinster 55 Glasgow 19, RDS, Jan 14, 2018 (replacement, 18 mins)

13. Montpellier 14 Leinster 23, Altrad Stadium, Jan 20, 2018 (starter, 73 mins)

14. France 13 Ireland 15, Stade de France, Feb 3, 2018 (starter, 68 mins)

15. Ireland 37 Wales 27, Aviva, Feb 24, 2018 (starter, 80 mins)

16. Ireland 28 Scotland 8, Aviva, Mar 10, 2018 (starter, 80 mins)

17. England 15 Ireland 24, Twickenham, Mar 17, 2018 (starter, 67 mins)

18. Leinster 30 Saracens 19, Aviva, April 1, 2018 (starter, 80 mins)

19. Leinster 38 Scarlets 16, Aviva, April 21, 2018 (starter, 71 mins, scored try)

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