After a disappointing World Cup campaign by Ireland, the second-row will be desperate to return to winning ways in the green jersey. Tom English reports

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The importance of Ireland lock James Ryan

James Ryan has had a charmed existence as a professional rugby player, a trophy-laden two years that have seen him become a European champion with Leinster, a Grand Slam winner with Ireland and the recipient of so many other awards that you fear for the stability of the shelving system in his place in Dublin.

He’d done all of that by the age of 22. He’s now 23 and has seen a little more of life in the game of late, some new exposure to its crueller realities. Though he was exceptional in Ireland’s 2019 Six Nations campaign – he was second only to Billy Vunipola in terms of carries, despite playing just four games, and swept the boards at the Irish Rugby Players Awards – the team slumped into a hole they never emerged from. From Six Nations to World Cup, things slowly unravelled as the Joe Schmidt era ground to the most anticlimactic end.

Ryan played solidly in the tournament but like the rest of them he went down with the ship. “You’ll never see something like Japan as a positive,” says Greg Feek, Ireland’s scrum coach during Schmidt’s time, “but his experiences in 2019 will bring more resilience and given what he’s already got, more resilience will make him an even more frightening prospect.

“From the first moment I spent time with him I could tell he was a sponge of learning. He just wants to listen to anything you say. He loves information. With some players there’s a lot of work to do to get them to the right place but with James it was just a bit of fine sandpapering that was required.

“He’s still young, he’s athletic and has a massive engine and incredible aerobic capacity. His X-factor is his desire; he’s relentless whether he’s on the field or at the computer or in meetings. He’s always the last to leave conversations. You can tell by the body language of some players that they want to get away but his thirst for any little bit of edge he can find makes him stay until the end. He’s a very driven character. Japan won’t change that. If anything, it’ll spur him on.”

Ryan started to make his presence felt in 2016 when he captained the Ireland U20 team – including Jacob Stockdale, Andrew Porter and Max Deegan – all the way to the Junior World Championship final. En route, they became the first Irish men’s international side to beat New Zealand, Chicago still being five months in the distance.

Like Brian O’Driscoll before him, Ryan made his Irish debut before playing his first competitive game for Leinster. He won a Grand Slam, a Pro14 and a Champions Cup at the first time of asking. In the 2018 European Cup final against Racing 92 he was Man of the Match. Later that year he put in a seismic display in victory over the All Blacks, carrying 17 times and making 20 tackles.

“His engine is incredible,” says Iain Henderson, his second-row partner with Ireland. “Loads of athletes around the world have incredible engines but it’s being able to do the right thing with it that counts. He continually produces performances that stand out.

“He’ll be Ireland captain, probably sooner rather than later I would say. When his name is on the team sheet you can put your mortgage on him turning up for you.”

Iain Henderson and James Ryan

Double act: Ireland locks Iain Henderson and James Ryan (Getty Images)

Ryan doesn’t say a lot to the media but his backstory is utterly compelling. He is the great grandson of Dr James Ryan, founding member of the Irish Volunteers and the Fianna Fáil party.

His ancestor was a young man of 24 when he entered the General Post Office (GPO) in April 1916. The Easter Rising was set and Ryan was at the heart of it. As the GPO came under heavy bombardment from the British military, some of the most storied men in Irish history took Ryan under their wing and trusted him to relay the truth of what happened there.

None of them believed they would survive – most were executed – but they also believed that Ryan would be spared on account of his youth. They were right, but Ryan was still imprisoned in Stafford and then Frongoch. Upon his release, he returned to Ireland and became a prominent and historic politician. He left behind an almighty legacy.

The young Ryan was the golden boy since 2016. He took an age to lose a game as a pro and would always rail against the notion that he had no concept of what disappointment felt like on a rugby pitch. He’d speak of losing a senior cup final with his school, St Michael’s, as evidence. That one bit hard at the time. So, too, did losing that Junior World Cup final to England. And a hamstring injury that laid him low.

His elevation to the Test side began in earnest in 2018 when he made his first big start against France in a game that will be remembered forever for Johnny Sexton’s late drop-goal. “James came in and all the Leinster people were calling him Cheese and the Big Cheese and all sorts of abbreviations around that,” says Rory Best, his captain in the green jersey.

“He’s a twin and I met his brother in Japan,” says Henderson of Mark Ryan, a talented full-back but one who suffered terribly bad luck with injury. Their dad, also called Mark, was a former Lansdowne player. “His brother is called Chicken Soup. So there’s Cheese and Chicken Soup. Don’t ask me what it’s about. A Dublin thing maybe. It goes straight over my head.”

Best says: “They have their own language, these young lads. He 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’. There are people who understand what this language is but I can’t get my head round it being so much older than him.”

The Big Cheese is supposedly a line from a movie which either Deegan or Dan Leavy started applying to Ryan. To Ryan’s annoyance, it stuck. “When he first came in, it was a meteoric rise,” adds Best. “There was a lot of talk about him and I was expecting a really big character who talks, talks, talks, but he’s not like that. He leads by the way he plays. He’s more comfortable now in talking to the group and when you ask him to say a few words it’s really to the point and exactly the right pitch. Everybody listens.

“What I really liked about him from the start is that he didn’t come in with an attitude of, ‘Yeah, this is where I’m meant to be…’ He was respectful and those are the types of people who tend to last longer. He’s well brought up and it’s obvious that he’s not just a talented rugby player but a rugby player who is absolutely immersed in the game.

“He has that humility, that’s what you get. I remember when I was first called up I had the attitude that I was lucky to be there, I had a huge appreciation of it, knowing how hard it was to get to that level. James had the same thing. He understood how difficult it was to get there and how hard he’d have to work to stay there. As a senior player you spot that and you relate to it.

“Everybody loves him, 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.”

Ireland lock James Ryan

Trophy time: James Ryan and Dan Leavy enjoy the 2018 Grand Slam (Getty Images)

That first game of the Grand Slam season was Ryan’s first competitive start and Best noticed things about him that day. The tougher it got out there in Paris, the more he wanted the ball. The number of collisions he was involved in was through the roof, the lines of running were intelligent, the carrying was relentless. There was a technical ferocity about him in his 68 minutes on the field that made you recall something Cian Healy said about him when he first saw him years before.

“I first saw him at Clontarf and he was a string bean – skinny, tall, talented. Then when you see him step up to the plate its jaw-dropping,” said the Leinster and Ireland prop.

“It’s no good going purely for grunt nowadays,” says Best. “Everybody is big, everybody is hard, everybody is well organised in terms of the defensive line. If all he does is grunt he will keep getting tackled, but he’s different. He’s very good at going back against the grain and defenders don’t see him until the last minute. The fact that he’s a big lump means he’s on top of them before they can get themselves set. He has an exceptional awareness of
where to be in order to make yards.

“In practically every game I’ve played with him he’s been a seven or an eight out of ten minimum, and he’s been higher than that more often than not. That’s seven, eight, nine out of ten in every minute. He’ll find ways to get better and he’ll have to because he’s no longer the new kid on the block, people know him now, they’re planning for him. He’ll improve because he has the honesty and the self-awareness.”

After the failure at the World Cup in Japan he has a renewed desire as well, if it was needed. The next chapter in the James Ryan story is about to unfold.

This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Rugby World magazine.

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