Tony Ward: 'James Ryan is already the complete package but overworked second-row must be handled with care'
The question to the Six Nations Jury in these pages last weekend was: 'which player can Ireland least afford to lose to injury or suspension during the Six Nations?'
The immediate response, and mine on auto up until now, would have been either of the half-backs.
It's not that we don't have maturing resources in reserve but because Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, individually and collectively, are so far ahead.
So I pondered and tried to put myself inside Joe Schmidt's head but it led me down a different and I believe much more accurate road entirely.
What Paul O'Connell was when he first burst on to the Munster and Ireland scene (try-scoring debut v Wales in 2002) alongside Mick Galwey, James Ryan is now (also a try-scoring debutant in green v USA in 2017).
For Galwey back then read Devin Toner as the mentor in chief now.
The value of an experienced head alongside, particularly in the 'boiler house' from days of yore, cannot be emphasised enough.
Talk to Donal Lenihan and ask him the difference Moss Keane made when nursing him through Munster red or Ireland green.
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Ryan is already indebted to Toner and to Lion Iain Henderson for their role in his Test introduction to date.
My answer to the Jury question went along the lines: "It might sound a little premature given his age and relative lack of experience but, with the injuries to Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson, James Ryan is already close to irreplaceable."
Needless to say I stand by that entirely with Ryan the most exciting forward talent to come through the provincial system since O'Connell.
We are blessed to have such a near complete second-row following in the footsteps of arguably our greatest lock.
Ryan is the real deal but there is a growing concern.
In defence of Schmidt and Andy Farrell, Simon Easterby and Greg Feek, the injury dilemma in the second-row is turning into a crisis with three first-choice locks laid low and Donnacha Ryan effectively banned from wearing the green.
Amazing how it was one rule for Sexton and another for Ryan, with both plying their trade in the same neck of the woods.
Either way the bottom line sees James Ryan, while not calling the lineouts, still the main man in the second-row and alongside Rory Best in front and Peter O'Mahony behind as an automatic leader, a role in which he is expected to perform, particularly with ball in hand, every game.
He is young, bursting with talent and energy, imbued with the most complete work ethic, but there has to be concern that given his still tender age (22) that we are flogging him to the limit.
In terms of sporadic rest, the game, even in these professional times, still favours backs over forwards for obvious reasons.
I am not scare-mongering but the recent spate of injuries in the second-row concerns as much in terms of the extra load on an extremely young pair of shoulders with what appears a legendary career ahead as the temporary loss of the high-profile players concerned.
As we all know from the said feeling, young is indestructible, to the mind's eye at that age at least.
I sympathise with Schmidt in his dilemma as his heart must skip a beat every time Ryan goes into contact which is just about every single piece of broken play.
If there is such a thing as a Gilbert magnet (to attract the ball), then the new-age 'Paulie' has the patent.
I think it is indicative too of the demands on Test second-rows everywhere that Gregor Townsend also has his problems in that area, although Johnny Gray will be back in situ today, while Maro Itoje, at 24, paid a high price for that physicality in Dublin.
But for now everything focuses on Murrayfield and a match we simply have to win.
The lessons from two years ago have been ingrained and along with last Saturday's no-show have been rehashed all week.
There is only one answer to under-performing and that is the next game.
We are fortunate, despite the mounting injuries, that Edinburgh comes within days of Dublin.
I expect a much more vibrant changing room ahead of today's kick-off.
It is a team picked to do a job and the best available in the circumstances. We could have done without the late withdrawal of Robbie Henshaw, yet with Chris Farrell comes real promise.
Despite five changes in personnel from seven days ago this is an Ireland side possibly even stronger than that which beat the All Blacks in November.
Farrell for Ringrose and Conor Murray for Kieran Marmion are the changes behind the scrum with Quinn Roux for Toner and Jack Conan for CJ Stander the enforced changes up front, while Sean O'Brien comes in as a strategic switch for Josh van der Flier.
Ringrose and Stander would be definite starters, probably Toner too if fit, but I think it is fair to say that the return of Murray and O'Brien for Marmion and Van der Flier doesn't weaken the team, in fact it is quite the opposite.
Ultan Dillane for Henderson on the bench represents the only change of consequence (as in injury) to the replacement line-up against New Zealand.
By any stretch of the imagination this is a powerful Ireland squad more than capable of making good the loss to England but equally will have had seeds of doubt planted on the back of that performance.
Given the year that is in it maybe that is no bad thing because questions are now being asked of this squad which have never been asked before.
The inability to respond to England's opening 40 at the Aviva has to be a concern and so too the corresponding game against the Scottish at today's venue two years ago.
We would not be so arrogant to describe this a potential banana skin but it is a Six Nations fixture with danger written all over.
There is real substance to a Scotland squad drawn from Champions Cup final eight qualifiers Edinburgh and Glasgow.
It is a really exciting selection that is driven by an equally exciting coach who preaches just as he played.
I genuinely believe last week to have been a glitch but the proof will be in the response and please, please let us come away with something more constructive than aerial bombardment from first whistle to last.
An Irish win, an Italian rest for Ryan and all will be good once again.