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James Ryan is 'an unbelievable player' says Ireland lock Devin Toner

The 21-year-old is expected to be part of Ireland’s team to face France this weekend.

THE BUZZ AROUND James Ryan has been building for some years now.

First there were the prompts to get out and watch St. Micheal’s College in action as the lock broke into their senior side, and soon there was the hype around Ryan when he represented the Ireland U20s, captaining them into a World Championship final.

James Ryan Ryan has bee highly rated for some years. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

From behind the scenes came word that although Ryan didn’t come across as the loudest character, his words to team-mates were powerful.

There was chat too about his remarkable athleticism, which is evident in many ways on the pitch, but perhaps not fully appreciated. Despite standing 6ft 8ins tall, Ryan is an explosive player with the ability to win collisions more often than not.

While his handling ability and lineout skills are only truly coming to the fore for Leinster and Ireland now, those were well flagged by those who had seen him play from an early age.

Now, after just four caps under Joe Schmidt, the 21-year-old looks likely to earn his first Six Nations cap as a starter against France in Paris.

The man who may lose out in Ireland’s starting XV this week is Devin Toner, such a stalwart for Schmidt in recent year. But 31-year-old Toner has always been aware of the rich potential Ryan possesses.

“He’s an unbelievable player,” said Toner earlier this week. “I think I’ve said it before, he’s obviously going to be one for the future. He’s a young lad, he’s hugely fit. He’s strong, a good lineout jumper, so he’s obviously a great player.

“He probably brings a new dimension to the second row. Obviously, he’s a different player to me.”

Devin Toner Toner has been extremely reliable under Schmidt. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Toner laughed when it’s suggested that he hopes Ryan is one for the longer-term future, rather than the immediate future.

“Yeah, pretty much!”

If Ryan is pitched into the mix from the start on Saturday in Stade de France, it will represent the biggest test of his ability so far, more so than his November start against Argentina.

Many international coaches might prefer to wait for a home game to introduce a 21-year-old into the Six Nations, and Toner underlines how big an ask it might be.

“I’m trying to remember my first involvements – it was coming to the end of Declan Kidney’s era and I was being filtered in off the bench so I kind of got a bit of a slow start to my Six Nations.

“It’s completely different to the November internationals. It’s a tournament and everything’s on the line and the pressure is much bigger in the Six Nations, and away to France in Stade de France – it will be huge.”

While Toner may be restricted to a bench role for Schmidt’s side, his calming effect could be important in the second half if Ireland find themselves in the kind of battle that has invariably panned out between these two teams in recent years.

Toner’s own form is strong at present, with his ball-carrying having stood out for Leinster in particular.

“I’m pretty happy with how well I’ve been going in the Champions Cup and with Leinster,” said Toner.

“I’ve been doing fairly well, but the amount of competition here… you’ve got James Ryan, you’ve got Hendy [Iain Henderson], you’ve got Ultan [Dillane], Quinn [Roux], they’re all playing very well.

Iain Henderson Iain Henderson is among the options in the second row. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“So the best thing that I can do is keep playing how I’m playing. I don’t think I did my best in November, but I think since then I’ve taken what the coaches said on board and hopefully I’ve done it.”

While Schmidt has been pleased with Toner’s carrying – highlighting it to him during a one-to-one session – there were other areas the towering lock needed to work on after November.

“Just kind of more defensive, not letting anybody on my inside shoulder and obviously being more physical at the breakdown. Basically, getting my height down and being able to use my size,” said Toner.

“It’s obviously something I’m always trying to work on, really, it’s a constant thing and maybe it slipped a little bit in November.”

Even if Ryan slips past him for this first Six Nations fixture, Toner will continue to work hard and he is likely to remain an important part of Schmidt’s set-up for some time, even if he doesn’t attract the plaudits.

Indeed, Toner had to laugh again when he heard team-mate Rob Kearney had admitted he felt slightly under-valued at times.

“Rob Kearney is under-appreciated? You’re joking me,” said Toner.

“Seconds rows are the unsung heroes, they are indeed. They do all the hard work, they catch the balls, they get possession; none of the plaudits.”

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Murray Kinsella

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