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Natural introvert, leader James Ryan intent on making noise in defining back-to-backs

The Leinster second row had to brush off the calls for him to captain Ireland. He is aware he still has plenty to learn.

‘IT COMES MORE naturally to me on the pitch,’ says James Ryan.

There has never been a doubt about him on that side of the white line.

james-ryan Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The lock was clearly marked out as a natural leader in rugby terms long before he won his first caps for Ireland and Leinster or fully filling out that 6’8″, 112 kilo frame.

Schools rugby is one thing, but he was utterly totemic for a successful Ireland U20 side before slotting smoothly into the professional environment with a maturity far beyond his years  and he has since taken up a place in Ireland’s leadership group.

At a time change for Irish rugby – a new coach, new World Cup cycle and a vacancy at captain – it’s only natural that Ryan’s name would be in the mix to be the new skipper for Ireland.

However, when the matter is put to him by a room full of headline-hungry journalists, his leadership takes the form of an unconvincing congressman at a public inquiry as he repeats the phrase:

“It’s a honour to be considered, but it’s not something that I’m really thinking about.”

Still just 23, Ryan may be happy to see the honour placed on somebody else’s shoulders (his provincial captain Jonny Sexton among the leading contenders) but he has been made aware of a need to put his head above the parapet.

The eastern province’s senior coach Stuart Lancaster has noted that his, and by extension Ireland’s, playing group is populated by a large amount of introverts.

He identifies himself by the same trait, but it is not always the ideal place from which to become a leader.

“A lot of the players are quiet, they are detail-orientated,” Lancaster said, “they are very respectful of coaches and what they say and everything else, which is great, great qualities but equally they need to be leaders on the field.

“So, sometimes, you’ve got to push this person who is traditionally quite reserved and quite quiet to be more vocal in meetings, to be more vocal in training sessions, to be more vocal in games because ultimately they are the ones that drive the performance.”

While the on-field traits of leadership have come reflexively for Ryan, he is aware of the need to work on the areas for improvement as outlined by Lancaster.

“Over the last couple of years (Lancaster has) been big on encouraging lads to have a viewpoint,” says Ryan, “have an opinion on things and to voice those opinions at meetings.

“And, certainly, when you are on the pitch if you are quiet going off (things haven’t gone well). It’s not the place to be quiet when you are out there. He has always been big on myself and everybody else finding their voice. I think it’s something that.. a lot of us have grown in that respect in the last couple of seasons.

I think it comes more naturally to me on the pitch. I don’t think it came as naturally to me coming in, originally, off it. But I think that I’ve played a few seasons now I probably feel more comfortable – I do feel more.”

Comfort isn’t a word Ryan would associate with his World Cup experiences. Like the other 32 players who went to Japan, he is actively putting it behind him and chanelling whatever emotions it conjures towards succeeding for his province.

In Leinster’s case, the returning internationals have been made to work to match the impressive winning rhythm set by the young tyros in the opening block of the season.

“I wouldn’t say I have buried the hatchet on (the World Cup) but it’s kinda in the back of my mind now.

james-ryan Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I suppose it is easier coming into an environment like this when things are going very well. One of the great things about northern hemisphere rugby is you have got to turn the page really quickly. We are heading into a defining block of our season right now.”

It’s a block that will be book-ended by two rounds of European action before the Champions Cup pool phase comes to a rest and the knock-out fixtures are set for spring. The major hurdle standing between Leinster and a home quarter-final is the next one.

Northampton Saints is a name to inspire a wide spectrum of emotions for Leinster fans. The December back-to-backs in 2013 will ward off any complacency if the Champions Cup favourites do manage to win in Franklin’s Gardens today (kick-off 1pm, Channel 4 and Virgin Sport). The 2011 final was another see-sawing affair, resulting in the most thrilling of Leinster’s European titles.

Head coach Leo Cullen this week called on his side to deliver a little more of that clinical attacking edge. To that end, he has selected Jordan Larmour at fullback, Jamison Gibson-Park as Sexton’s half-back partner and benched Tadhg Furlong to reward the excellent form of Andrew Porter at tighthead.

While Ronan Kelleher has deservedly taken the majority of the plaudits from Leinster’s early-season form, 21-year-old number 8 Caelan Doris has also been a stand-out performer in what is currently a nine-game winning streak.

The front-liners are acutely aware that there are more hungry young men snapping at their heels.

“It’s up to the guys active this week and next week to carry on that form,” says Ryan.

“It’s so competitive at the moment in training. Hopefully we can use that as a competitive advantage for us because there’s a squad here that you could pick any of these players.

We saw the result there just gone; the first time we have won in Glasgow in seven years. So the guys selected this week definitely the onus is on them to carry that form.”


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“We are happy enough with the start to Europe. It wasn’t perfect, but heading into December unbeaten it’s not a bad place to be.”

Northampton Saints

15. Ahsee Tuala
14. Tom Collins
13. Matt Proctor
12. Rory Hutchinson
11. Taqele Naiyaravoro
10. Dan Biggar
9. Cobus Reinach

1. Alex Waller Capt
2. Mikey Haywood
3. Ehren Painter
4. Alex Moon
5. Api Ratuniyarawa
6. Tom Wood
7. Jamie Gibson
8. Teimana Harrison


16. Michael Van Vuuren
17. Francois van Wyk
18. Paul Hill
19. Alex Coles
20. Lewis Ludlam
21. Connor Tupai
22. James Grayson
23. Piers Francis


15. Jordan Larmour
14. Dave Kearney
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. James Lowe
10. Johnny Sexton  Capt
9. Jamison Gibson-Park

1. Cian Healy
2. Rónan Kelleher
3. Andrew Porter
4. Devin Toner
5. James Ryan
6. Rhys Ruddock
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Caelan Doris


16. James Tracy
17. Ed Byrne
18. Tadhg Furlong
19. Scott Fardy
20. Max Deegan
21. Luke McGrath
22. Ross Byrne
23. Rob Kearney

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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