James Ryan was 15 years old and standing 6’ 5” when he began to realise that playing for Ireland was a goal within his considerable reach. Most who saw him play back then soon came to the same conclusion.
Joe Schmidt among them. Ireland’s head coach watched Ryan captain a dominant St Michael’s side in Leinster Schools Cup action years before he went on to hand him his senior debut for Ireland, against the USA last summer. The youngster had yet to appear for Leinster’s firsts.
“All I ever wanted to do is be a professional rugby player, since I could walk, really,” said the 21-year-old second row, less than 10 months on from his first senior game. “It has always been the dream for me. I’m in a very lucky position, but I can’t be getting too sentimental or anything like that. In a week like this, we’ve got a huge Test match and, if I lose track of that, I will get myself compromised. I’m staying process focused.”
Expectation has been a constant. A former captain of the Irish U20s, he has been compared to Paul O’Connell time and again. The latest occasion was post-Wales two weekends ago, when all such talk was abruptly dismissed.
Ryan presented his usual inscrutable guise with the media this week. Words were offered carefully, stripped clean of anything approximating controversy or self-praise, so his response when asked if he was an Irish skipper-in-waiting was predictable: “That’s way down the line.”
Clubmate and Irish colleague Dan Leavy put it out there last month that the lock liked to refer to himself as ‘The Big Cheese’, but that always seemed at odds with the reality and the man himself exposed it as a dressing-room prank.
His profile is low off the pitch.
Ryan is studying history and politics in UCD, when the day job allows, while Cian Healy has put him in charge of music in camp. His tastes range from rap to house to dance music and he’ll even oblige the man they call ‘Church’ with a bit of Christy Moore.
Young players are, as a rule, guarded conversationalists with the press. Getting comfortable on the pitch is a far more important business in your early twenties than being at ease with a microphone and Ryan certainly has those priorities in the correct order.
One of the most prominent subplots to this Six Nations campaign is the ease with which such inexperienced youth have stepped into the shoes of more grizzled teammates and carry out their duties almost to a tee in the most taxing of circumstances.
Schmidt’s attention to detail is clearly one key to that, but so is the wider Irish system through which they have emerged: From their schools through to the provincial academies. Ryan’s experiences have been typical of that. His days at St Michael’s were peppered with gym sessions in the mornings, maybe video analysis at lunchtime and the usual field work after the final bell. Life at Leinster and Ireland isn’t all that different, in that sense.
One other factor shouldn’t be forgotten in all this.
Ryan, Jacob Stockdale, Chris Farrell et al have stepped up to Test level at a time when Ireland are a smoothly-oiled machine under their Kiwi coach. Other players — think of all those one-cap wonders thrown to the lions in the Paris den for years — weren’t so lucky.
That said, Ryan’s record is, frankly, ridiculous, given he has yet to lose a game of professional rugby. His record approaching Saturday’s game against Scotland is: Played 16, won 16. Ten have been with Leinster, the other half-dozen with Ireland. Practically the only thing holding him back has been injury: A serious hamstring issue delayed his emergence last season, there was a rolled ankle suffered against Munster that cost him a month at the turn of the year and then the groin niggle that left him unused against Italy.
“It does frustrate me a bit. Most of the injuries I’ve had this year have been impact injuries. It’s more of a case of my body getting used to this level. They are all niggles. I just have to come to terms with that. I’ve been lucky the last few weeks, I haven’t picked up anything.”
Aside from more plaudits.
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