Thursday 24 October 2019

The Life of Ryan - How Ireland's second row sensation became one of the world's best

Cian Tracey speaks to former Leinster player Mark Ryan about his son James' rapid rise through the ranks as Ireland's hugely talented lock gets set to make his mark at the World Cup

James Ryan poses for a portrait following an Ireland Rugby press conference. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
James Ryan poses for a portrait following an Ireland Rugby press conference. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

For as long as Mark Ryan can remember, his son James has been a student of the game. Even when a rugby ball was not in his hands, he was sitting in front of the TV watching re-runs of Super Rugby games and anything else he could get his hands on.

Rugby is ingrained in James, helped by the fact that when he was growing up, he didn't have to look too far for inspiration.

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'Having famously played that final with a torn medial ligament, there was no questioning Ryan’s stomach for the fight. This kid was going places in a hurry.' Picture credit: Pat Murphy / Sportsfile
'Having famously played that final with a torn medial ligament, there was no questioning Ryan’s stomach for the fight. This kid was going places in a hurry.' Picture credit: Pat Murphy / Sportsfile

James, his twin brother Mark and their brother David always looked up to their father Mark Snr, who played for Leinster. There was never a question of forcing his sons down the same path, however, they were simply raised with a love for the game.

All three have already enjoyed varying degrees of success, and although Mark has had to cut short his own career due to injury, the youngest of the trio, David, recently played for the Ireland U-20s at the Junior World Cup.

James could watch the same game over and over again if it meant that he could learn something new. It is one thing being obsessed with rugby, but it is another to study and analyse the game from such a young age. Coming from a home where he was given huge support from his parents Mark and Clare, as well as sister Kate, anyone who saw James play in those early years knew he was destined for big things.

"I have been following him on the sidelines since he was six or seven, so it has been a long road," Mark says. "Even as a smaller kid, he was always incredibly focused on rugby. He would come home after playing on a Saturday morning and sit down and watch three or four rugby matches in a row."

The game might have changed since his dad's playing days, but that doesn't stop James leaning on Mark for valuable advice.

That began at an early age, being brought to games in Lansdowne, and that father-son bond remains as strong as ever. It is easy to see where James gets his humility from.

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James was named after his great grandfather, who was a founding member of the Irish Volunteers and was one of the key figures in the 1916 Easter Rising.

"We come from a political family because my grandfather was a minister in government and my dad was a senator," Mark explains. "We were conscious of being very involved in the start of the Irish Republic in terms of 1916 and the War of Independence and all of that stuff.

"James, from pretty much straight away in school, was big into history and he did loads of projects on his great grandfather and that whole time around the War of Independence and 1916. That's why he studies history and politics in UCD. It was a natural fit for him."

St Michael's College

Before the college degree in UCD came a hugely successful period in school at St Michael's College. At a time when the Ailesbury Road nursery was on the up, Ryan propelled the school to new heights. Having captained Michael's to their first Junior Cup in 10 years in 2012, it became clear that Ryan was not only a star in the making, but a natural leader too.

Having famously played that final with a torn medial ligament, there was no questioning Ryan's stomach for the fight. This kid was going places in a hurry.

"Sending him to a rugby school was important," Mark maintains. "They played soccer in Mount Merrion and did different things, but I think kids eventually gravitate towards what the school is doing. I think that has the biggest influence on what they end up doing.

"Michael's gave the boys a very good footing. They were lucky to go into a Michael's era that was beginning to be really successful in rugby and had some great coaches. All of that fitted in well. His timing was perfect."

It wasn't long before Ryan was promoted to the Senior Cup and Leinster Schools teams, so by the time he finished in Michael's, his reputation was rapidly growing.

Ireland U-20s

The first time we got a chance to speak with Ryan was in a quiet corner of a Dublin hotel ahead of the start of the U-20s Six Nations in 2016. Having just been named captain, Ryan's first taste of media duties revealed a shy kid who would rather let his rugby do the talking. Not much has changed since.

A third-place finish dented hopes going into that summer's Junior World Cup, but Ryan rallied his troops and led them to the country's first final appearance. A defeat to New Zealand was followed by Ryan's first major injury, but, as Mark recalls, it turned out to be a bit of a blessing in disguise.

"Being that disciplined individual, he spent a huge amount of time working hard. If you think back, he would have been 20 that July and he spent a huge amount of that time really building himself up and working on that upper-body strength. He naturally filled out more.

"It was very unfortunate to have that injury but the reality was that he went into it as an U-20s kid but he came out the far end much more of a man. It all comes back to his focus and discipline, which has been the hallmark of how he goes about things."


Having secured his place in the Leinster Academy, Ryan was fast-tracked into the senior set-up. Leo Cullen knows a good lock when he sees one and he couldn't but be impressed by the potential he saw in Ryan.

"When you see guys at school, you're like, 'What will they look like when they come into us,'" the Leinster head coach admits.

"When you see some of them, they are not as big as you hoped. James is a big man, dedicated to his craft. That is important to understand. James has that mindset. He is very driven, very focused, and he's getting better all the time."

Ryan's eagerly-awaited Leinster debut arrived after he had been capped by Ireland, which saw him join an elite club.

Two years since that first game against the Dragons at the RDS, Ryan has won a Grand Slam, the Champions Cup as well as two PRO14 titles. Some players go through their entire career without winning half as much.

And it was just as well Leinster didn't second guess getting Ryan into their set-up as Mark jokes: "If he wasn't going to play for Leinster, his uncles used to give him and his brothers all the Connacht gear, so we have plenty of that around the house. My wife is from Galway and his uncle has a pub down there in a small village called Clonbur.

"He loves going down there. He is happy sitting in the pub talking to the locals. He played GAA when he was small down there, so he knows them all. They have kind of adopted him."


Three months before lining out for Leinster for the first time, Ryan made his mark on the international stage during Ireland's summer tour to USA and Japan.

He marked his senior debut in the green jersey with a try, which only heightened the level of expectation around him. A year later he played a key role in Ireland's Grand Slam.

"I have been surprised by how quickly he has made the step up," Mark admits. "His trademark for me from watching him is that every time he went to the next level, he seemed to get comfortable at it very quickly.

"I can't remember a moment when someone said he should be captain, but I guess the way he applied himself both in training and in games, and how he took a step forward all the time, he became a person people began to look up to.

"And therefore he started getting selected as the captain. Once he was captain the first time on that U-13s team, he seemed to be captain on nearly all the teams he played."

His dad might not like to say it, but James Ryan is an Ireland captain in waiting.

The future

The Ryan family arrived in Japan on Thursday and will take in Ireland's first two games against Scotland and Japan. Although they will then return to Dublin, Mark has plans to come back for a potential quarter-final.

Having just turned 23 during the summer, it's scary to think how good Ryan can become, especially considering he is already one of the best players in the world.

As every father would in this situation, however, Mark is quick to urge a note of caution. "You don't like to look too far into the future because players get injured. His mother would worry about him getting injured and you would too because he is so young and he does throw his body around in a very physical manner. But he looks after himself. He is very disciplined. He rehabs very carefully - he is a pro in that regard."

Big things are expected of Ryan over the coming weeks, not least from his team-mate and close friend Dan Leavy.

"He is a world-class player," Leavy insists.

"Everyone who has played against him or with him knows how good he is. The stage is set for him. I'm sure he'll leave his mark on world rugby after the tournament."

The stage is indeed set for James Ryan to really announce himself. And as they have been throughout his career, his family will be there to witness it.

"I'm proud of all my kids, but with James' success, all of the family are incredibly proud of him," Mark adds. "I have to pinch myself sometimes that he has gone so far in such a relatively short space of time."

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