If January showed us something about the most important of the least important things – as Jurgen Klopp might put it – it was James Ryan not putting up with a team-mate getting unnecessarily tied up in a ruck.
So it was for James Tracy in the 70th minute of Leinster’s game with Ulster at the RDS last month. Ryan was anticipating what Ulster were going to do next and he needed Tracy alongside him in the defensive line. “Tracy, get the f**k out of the ruck,” a red-faced Ryan roared.
Ryan probably gives loads of executive orders during games but the acoustics mean we generally don’t hear them. But we heard this order, loud and clear.
Of course, if it was Johnny Sexton who used the f-word during a live game on TV there would have been cries from the #bekind brigade to use language of a more soothing nature with one’s team-mates.
The notion that this current Ireland team is too nice has been hanging around the fringes of this squad for over a year.
Before last year’s Six Nations, Brian O’Driscoll wondered whether Ireland have “that ‘thug’ within the team that you want to throw their weight around a little bit and set out a few markers… We don’t have it in the second-row. We’ve two great athletes (Ryan and Iain Henderson) but I don’t think it exists.”
Maybe Ireland’s players didn’t need to channel their inner dog as much when they were technically superior to everyone else during the zenith of the Joe Schmidt era. And Schmidt placed such a premium on discipline and a low penalty count that there was less of a need to play on the edge in order to get an edge because they were too busy pulling off power plays, thank you very much.
Such is Ryan’s exemplary disciplinary record that it was only in October last year that he got the first yellow card of his career in Leinster’s game away to Benetton. But in the search for technical supremacy, Ireland lost some of the enforcer qualities that need to come out when you’re being bullied.
Ryan was one of the few players who brought the fight to England in that 24-12 loss at Twickenham last February. But the more Ryan grows into the leader of this Irish pack, the more important his influence on his team-mates becomes.
Ireland's James Ryan looks at the scoreboard during the Autumn Nations Cup match against England at Twickenham Stadium last November. Photo: Matt Impey/Sportsfile
There’s a strong possibility that Ryan will be captain of Ireland this time next year, which makes this a seminal season for him. Such was the want for freshness after the World Cup that the question about whether Ryan was actually ready to become national captain was too easily skipped over.
It’s a pretty big leap from being an underage captain to captain of the national team and just because someone like O’Driscoll was captain at the age of 23 doesn’t automatically mean it is the right time or right decision for Ryan (who’s now 24).
The case for Sexton to stay on as captain for a second year was strengthened because of the two games he missed last November – the 18-7 loss away to England and the 23-10 win over Georgia in Dublin – when his influence was missed.
Ryan was captain for those two games and as challenging as an away England game is for a first test as Ireland captain, there wasn’t overwhelming evidence to suggest that Ryan’s time to be captain was absolutely now.
Of course, captaincy is filed under the ‘growing-into’ role. But when Sexton was confirmed as Ireland captain again for this year there was little in the way of uproar.
So in an observation on human behaviour, what does Ryan need to get out of himself this year to show he’s captain-ready next year?
Working with Paul O’Connell couldn’t come at a better time in Ryan’s career. It will make for an interesting watch to see how he improves the likes of Henderson, Tadhg Beirne, Quinn Roux, Ultan Dillane et al.
But the success of O’Connell as forwards coach could also be solely viewed through the prism of Ryan’s growth as a lock, line-out caller, pack leader and captain-in-waiting.
Ryan has done pretty well for himself up until now with a Grand Slam, Heineken Cup winners medal, when working under Schmidt, Simon Easterby, Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster.
But if we’re to use Maro Itoje as a measurement of Ryan’s progress, he hasn’t closed the gap on one of the best in the world as fast as some of us breathlessly anticipated after his stunning breakthrough year in 2018, which resulted in Ryan being spoken about as a future Lions captain.
O’Connell sees the room for improvement in his new protégé.
“James is a fantastic player. He’s got an incredible work-ethic, as a ball-carrier he’s top class, his maul defence is top class and as he gathers experience and experiences different coaches, that will be the icing on the cake for his game,” O’Connell said this week.
“There isn’t a lot you can add to James Ryan physically in terms of his size, his fitness, but as his knowledge of the game grows and his experience grows, he’s only going to get better as a player.”
O’Connell will be Ryan’s human encyclopaedia. It’s not just the Schmidt-level detail on lineout, ruck, maul and original O’Connell thinking that he can plug into, but also O’Connell’s attitude.
“Look, I think (his) mindset obviously,” Ryan said this week about O’Connell’s influence. “An ex-Irish, Lions captain, he was always unbelievably driven and focused. So having his mindset around the group will be great not only for me but for us as a pack and for us as a team going forward.”
Of course, we can’t assume this coach-player relationship will turn out to be everything it’s hoped it will be. O’Connell has to learn and understand the quirks and differences of this younger generation.
“They have their own language, these young lads,” Rory Best said in an interview with Rugby World last year.
“He (Ryan) talks to you in letters rather than words. ‘Hey, BM…’ will be ‘Hey, big man…’ or when he’s texting it’ll be, ‘HB-BM’ and that’ll be ‘Happy birthday, big man’.
"I can’t get my head round it being so much older than him”.
Best addedd: “Everybody loves him (Ryan), whether you’re myself at 37 or Johnny Sexton at 34 or Jacob Stockdale at 23 or Jordan Larmour at 22. Everybody wants to spend time with him and that’s a great trait to have. To span generations and be that likeable is not easy.”
Andy Farrell likes to say that he wants players and coaches to be themselves in camp but that doesn’t mean he wants them to stay as they are. In neurolinguistic programming, the Law of Requisite Variety puts it that the part of the system with the greatest flexibility of behaviour will control the system.
We’ve heard it said that Ryan isn’t a big talker, but that doesn’t mean that side of his personality can’t be continuously encouraged, as I’m sure they are doing and also at Leinster. This is what we need to see more of from Ryan and this is where O’Connell’s influence could really come into play .
All the blowback fell on Sexton when he kicked to the corner, rather than to the posts, before half-time in Ireland’s Six Nations game in Paris last October. Sexton did turn and ask Ryan before kicking.
As Ronan O’Gara said before about O’Connell, there were times when O’Connell used to point to the posts and automatically take the decision away from O’Gara.
True, Sexton is the captain here and you see Sexton turn to his team-mates when they get a penalty, so there is space there for more input from his vice-captain.
Irish locks through the years have distinctive personalities ranging from obsessional to laid back, funny to fiery and there’s the curious relationship between the two locks on the same team with one generally required to be the dominant type especially if he’s calling the line-out.
Who knows if a Lions tour will take place this year but Ryan will be tested by the domineering personalities of Itoje and, tomorrow, Alun Wyn Jones, in Cardiff.
Ryan might not have the extrovert personality or experience they have but you can bet O’Connell will look to bring it out in him. A lock, not to mention a lock who’s a leader, demands the kind of respect that when you shout “get the f**k out of the ruck” that’s exactly what your team-mate immediately does. And Ryan’s shown he’s got that.