It’s a doozy, as quiz questions go: When did James Ryan last lose a game of rugby?
Even the man himself isn’t sure. He pauses at the query and eventually comes up with a British and Irish Cup game last season. No date, no opponent. Just a hazy memory.
The date was October 22, 2016.
A B&I Cup game for Leinster ‘A’ against Nottingham in front of 950 souls at Donnybrook Stadium, as it was still called at the time. An eight-point loss with Ryan giving way to Hayden Triggs six minutes into the second half.
Hugh Hogan was coach of Leinster As at the time and spoke beforehand about what a “brilliant learning experience” it would be for the likes of Ryan to be playing alongside Ireland internationals Jack Conan and Richardt Strauss.
Ryan was only a first-year academy man, one with undoubted potential but still only at the foothills of his career, and he would follow that appearance with a try for UCD in a win against Garryowen in the top tier of the AIL a few weeks later at the Belfield Bowl.
Then the blip on the graph.
He was participating in a captain’s run before UCD’s next game, against Lansdowne, when he suffered a grade-three hamstring tear that would keep him out for eight months. His return, though, was another for those who love their sporting trivia.
Joe Schmidt, eager to bring him on tour to the US and Japan, made a call through to Rassie Erasmus and asked that the Leinster youngster be accommodated in a Munster Development selection playing the Ireland U20s at Thomond Park.
Ryan played and Munster won.
Add in the 19 games he has played, and won, with both Leinster’s senior side and Ireland since then and the St Michael’s graduate has had a part in 21 games through 18 months without once experiencing defeat.
“It’s a bit jammy, to be honest,” he said of his Midas touch. “We will see how long it can last, but hopefully it can.”
He’s clearly embarrassed by the suggestion that he is some sort of lucky charm. Then he goes and gives the tag even more weight by admitting that he attended all three of the province’s winning Heineken Cup finals as a child.
His good fortune has carried through to his Irish career: From the try scored on his debut against the US last summer to the Grand Slam he banked on just his eight cap, against England, last month.
It was Dan Leavy who revealed Ryan to be ‘the Big Cheese’. It’s a nickname that fits with his performances in the back row and the copious comparisons with Paul O’Connell and Maro Itoje, but the quirky sobriquet seems to have a fairly random origin.
Leavy was the one who brought this all out into the public sphere and, though Ryan denies his teammates’ assertion that he has ever called himself the Big Cheese, this is a pair of forwards that is showing a wider tendency to read off the same page.
That much was obvious when they combined for Leavy’s try against Saracens in Sunday’s Champions Cup quarter-final, but the artistry involved with the nifty hands and the one-two was played down by the lock.
He doesn’t seem all that interested in looking back. The craic in London and in Dublin post-Six Nations was great. So too the few pints he enjoyed in his uncle’s pub in Connemara later that week. Now, though, he’s all business.
Leinster return to Guinness PRO14 action tomorrow, against Zebre at the RDS. Ryan is probably among those in line for a bit more R&R, but the focus remains total as the province approaches the business end of the campaign.
“We all want to win European Cups in Leinster, so that’s the goal for me and everybody else,” he said. “We’ve won the Grand Slam, done and dusted, and we’ve got a PRO14 and European Cup now to win, hopefully.”
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