Ireland lock James Ryan. Billy Stickland/INPHO

James Ryan has taken his game to a completely new level with Ireland

Still only 26, the Ireland second row is well on track to be a centurion.

PICK A LIONS team now and it would be dominated by Irish players, so perhaps it’s not the best time to make this point.

Still, let’s make it: James Ryan would be a certainty for inclusion in the second row of a hypothetical Lions team after a phenomenal year of Test rugby.

Back in 2021, the Ireland second row missed out on the tour of South Africa and wasn’t called up when Warren Gatland needed an injury reinforcement in the second row. With Ryan dealing with an injury niggle at that stage, Adam Beard of Wales was preferred and ended up with a Lions Test cap.

To be fair, Ryan wasn’t at his best back then. He had been struggling with injuries, including concussion, and he lacked real rhythm in his play. While many would still have had him in their Lions squad, you could see where Gatland was coming from.

It was undoubtedly a big disappointment for Ryan, particularly given the heights he had soared to earlier in his career. Remember, this is a guy who played for Ireland [and Munster!] before he had even made his senior Leinster debut.

A year after captaining the Ireland U20s to World Championship final, he was making his Test debut off the bench against the USA when some of Ireland’s big guns were away for the 2017 Lions tour.

Ryan scored a try with his second touch of international rugby and made his first Ireland start against Argentina a few months later in the autumn. He was a first-choice player in the second row by the time Ireland’s 2018 Grand Slam campaign rolled around.

ross-byrne-james-ryan-and-peter-omahony-celebrate-winning Ryan with Ross Byrne and Peter O'Mahony. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Still just 21 during that championship, Ryan was a key component in Joe Schmidt’s side. He tackled, carried, rucked, mauled, and scrummaged ferociously in what was a strictly-defined role. His numbers were off the charts. A few months later, he was central as Leinster claimed their most recent European title.

Ryan has never been out of the Ireland XV since late November 2017 but he did encounter a slowed-down phase in his career after that meteoric rise.

The aforementioned injuries were the prime reason, although Ryan has had to work hard to make himself a more complete second row. His handling and offloading weren’t utilised his earlier years as a Test lock, so it has been a process to get to the point where he now looks comfortable and fluid within Ireland’s attractive attacking style under Andy Farrell.

Ryan has also grown as a force when it comes to leading Ireland’s lineout. His individual skills in the set-piece have never been in question but he has clearly benefited from working closely with Paul O’Connell. Upon joining in early 2021, the Ireland forwards coach clearly began to push Ryan to be a more proactive defensive jumper and the steals swiftly followed.

Ryan has also worked hard with O’Connell, as well as Leo Cullen in Leinster, on his lineout calling. His understanding and intelligence in that department are obvious, never more so than in Scotland two weekends ago when Ireland ended up with flanker Josh van der Flier throwing in and loosehead prop Cian Healy filling completely different lineout roles to what he would be used to.

Ryan calmly led Ireland to a return of six wins from nine van der Flier throws. Rather than being a weakness, Farrell’s side actually scored their second and third tries from lineout platforms. It was remarkable stuff in one of Ryan’s five 80-minute outings for Ireland in their Grand Slam campaign.

Even at the death, Ryan was sprinting upfield to take a pass from Jamison Gibson-Park and nearly offload to James Lowe for the bonus point. It agonisingly flew forward but the passage was a clear illustration of Ryan’s engine and work ethic.

james-ryan-after-the-game Ryan with his parents, Clare and Mark. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

He was one of four Irish players to play every minute of this Six Nations. Josh van der Flier, Mack Hansen, and James Lowe were the others. 

As well as scrummaging on the tighthead side – regarded to be the tougher gig in the second row – Ryan called their lineout and was still his usual busy self around the pitch, as illustrated by data from Opta.

45 carries across the five games left him behind only Caelan Doris, Hugo Keenan, and Mack Hansen in terms of ball-carrying volume. As O’Connell mentioned recently, Ryan is bringing aggressive bite in his carries, with more evidence of that against England last weekend.

Meanwhile, Ryan’s 19 passes left him behind only van der Flier in terms of the Irish forwards. His fluidity in this area of the game has been noticeable more recently.

Van der Flier’s 67 completed tackles pipped Ryan’s 66, but the latter had a slightly higher completion rate of 92% in the tackle. The Ireland lock is an expert in his area of the game, capable of delivering technically excellent tackles with real impact. In his early days, he was a sensational chop-tackler but possibly became slightly too reliant on a single technique. These days, Ryan brings more variety.

Ryan was in the top three for Irish ruck arrivals with 122, leaving him only behind van der Flier’s 147 and Andrew Porter’s 140. Again, Ryan is a master in the clear out. Go back through Irish try-scoring passages and he’s often somewhere at the coal face ensuring quick ball. 

These numbers help to paint a picture of how Ryan is offering lots of everything for Ireland, although they don’t tell us anything about his growing comfort as a leader.

james-ryan-in-a-lineout Ryan rises to win an Irish lineout. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Ryan captained Ireland for the seventh time in the win over Italy, while he has clearly become more comfortable in offering on-field direction to skipper Johnny Sexton.

We’re now seeing moments when Ryan tells Sexton what Ireland are going to do with penalties, as for Rob Herring’s crucial maul try in the third Test in New Zealand last summer and for Josh van der Flier’s vital score against the Springboks back in the autumn.

Farrell tells all his players to be themselves and it looks like Ryan is doing that more than ever before with Ireland. The exciting thing is that he can still get better.

Remarkably, Ryan will only turn 27 in July. He has already been a key man in two Grand Slam-winning sides, helped Ireland to a series success in New Zealand, a Triple Crown, and a few clean sweeps of the November series.

His 2019 World Cup experience obviously wasn’t a happy one but there’s another coming around soon. With Leinster, there are wrongs to be put right, while the 2025 Lions tour will be a longer-term goal.

Ryan already has 53 Ireland caps to his name and he will be one of their centurions barring injuries. It’s tempting to say that Ryan has been back to his best over the last two seasons but the reality is that he has gone to a completely new level.

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