Sport Rugby World Cup 2019

Monday 18 November 2019

Alan Quinlan: 'James Ryan is the leader Ireland need who can soar to level of O’Connell, Johnson and Eales'

James Ryan of Ireland, centre, in a team huddle during the 2019 Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final match between New Zealand and Ireland at the Tokyo Stadium in Chofu, Japan. Photo by Juan Gasparini/Sportsfile
James Ryan of Ireland, centre, in a team huddle during the 2019 Rugby World Cup Quarter-Final match between New Zealand and Ireland at the Tokyo Stadium in Chofu, Japan. Photo by Juan Gasparini/Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

The bemused faces spoke volumes – those of my team-mates, our Ulster opponents and even Alain Rolland, who shuddered upon realising I now had a licence to speak to him and, more pertinently, that he would actually have to respond.

Even Declan Kidney didn’t look convinced when asking me to fulfil the role, but that didn’t matter a jot as far as I was concerned, the honour superseded everything.

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The final-day drama of the 2007 Six Nations – Ireland losing out to France on points difference – unfolded just six days previously, so we were down to the bare bones, particularly up front, and chasing an unlikely result in Belfast.

The negativity couldn’t penetrate my bubble of content though. Alan Quinlan, captain of Munster. I loved the sound of it.

Another childhood dream achieved no matter how unlikely it may once have seemed for a player whose discipline appeared to regress with every passing year.

Our squad was absolutely decimated. Ulster were missing a few too but could still pick a backline that contained Andrew Trimble, Tommy Bowe, Paddy Wallace, David Humphreys and Isaac Boss, and an imposing pack with figures like Rory Best, Justin Harrison, Stephen Ferris and Kieron Dawson. I delivered my pre-match pep talk with gusto – motivational speaking was never a problem – but when we traipsed back into the dressing-room at half-time, the scoreboard read 21-3 to the hosts.

We had a mountain to climb against a team that hadn’t lost a home Magners League game in almost a year and a half, and who were desperately chasing a win to go top of the table.

It may sound odd, after being outplayed so comprehensively, but I loved every one of those first 40 minutes.

Deccie asked me to lead by example when handing me the captaincy, probably in fear that I would be even more wound up, and therefore likely to lose the head, than usual.

But the role had a Xanax-like effect on me, the responsibility directing me away from common pitfalls.

I simply couldn’t let the team down, couldn’t give away silly penalties, couldn’t fight with the opposition, or worse still, my own players.

I had captained club teams in Clanwilliam, Munster Youths, Ireland Youths and even the Munster U-20s on a few occasions, but this was cloud nine territory.

Somehow, and I cannot put it down to a rousing interval speech by yours truly, we turned the ship around in Ravenhill, a memorable second-half comeback capped by the skipper putting in a cross-kick for Brian Carney to score the winning try in a 24-21 success.

It’s not the most glamorous of career highlights, but my sole outing as Munster captain is right up there.

Leading any side is a huge honour and responsibility and it’s important to pick the right man for the job.

I was never really in captaincy conversations at Shannon or Munster due to my propensity to lose the rag.

Your leader needs to be many things: measured yet confrontational, a certain starter for the foreseeable future, and a player who leads by example with their performances. Someone, in Ireland’s case, like James Ryan.

He ticks all the boxes and is the outstanding candidate to lead Ireland out of the World Cup doldrums. The job should be Ryan’s as long as he wants it.

I’ve met him on a number of occasions and like most natural leaders he has a real presence about him. He is fully engaged when he speaks, thinking about his message, and exudes humility.

For those claiming that Ryan, at 23, is too young to assume a role of such immense responsibility, consider that Sam Warburton (22), Richie McCaw (23) and Brian O’Driscoll (24) captained their countries early in their international careers.

Ryan has already won the biggest honours in northern hemisphere rugby, for Leinster and Ireland, and perhaps even more importantly, as the captain of the U-20 side that reached the 2016 World Cup final, is the leader of the next generation. He is the ideal link man between two groups of players at the opposite ends of their careers.

Making him captain isn’t just the right move due to his performances, but it would also help Andy Farrell turn the page from Japan.

Symbolically, having such a fresh-faced leader would feel more like a new dawn. And besides, with the likes of Peter O’Mahony, Johnny Sexton, CJ Stander and Rhys Ruddock around him, Ryan will not be short on options for advice should he need it.

I have always felt more comfortable with a team’s captain coming from the pack, someone who understands how to control the temperature at the coalface.

Fourteen of the 20 captains in Japan were forwards, although Alun Wyn Jones is the only out-and-out lock among them.

Two of the best captains I played under were second-rows, Mick Galwey and Paul O’Connell, while some of the game’s most iconic leaders also operated in the engine-room: Martin Johnson, John Eales, Victor Matfield, Fabien Pelous and Jones.

Barring a disaster, I expect James Ryan will end up being talked about in that company. He looks likely to go on numerous Lions tours, maybe leading them too.

There is always a risk that older noses will be put out of joint when a guy relatively new on the scene gets the primary leadership role, but professional players, team-mates of Ryan’s, will know he is the right man for the job at this point in time.

I played under Paulie and Drico, both four or five years my junior, and the age gap was never an issue.

They were outstanding players of their generation, natural leaders.

You could see from early on that they would both be influential figures in Irish rugby for years to come.

The same can be said of Ryan, the leader that Irish rugby needs.

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