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James Ryan doesn't need to be captain to go to next level with Ireland

The 23-year-old second row still has plenty of room for improvement.

STILL JUST 23, James Ryan is already one of Ireland’s most important players and though some supporters were disappointed the Leinster man wasn’t named the new national team captain for this Six Nations, there is every reason to be excited about his potential to get even better.

Some will still feel Ryan was the best choice – a relatively fresh face offering the chance for Ireland to make a pointed leap forward.

james-ryan-before-the-game Ryan is ready to push on again for Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Andy Farrell’s decision to back 34-year-old Johnny Sexton as captain hasn’t gone down well in some quarters but avoiding burdening Ryan with the responsibilities and pressures of the leadership looks like an intelligent decision.

Ryan has captained most teams he has been part of on his rugby journey so far but he hasn’t done the job at senior level with Leinster yet and, as such, he would have been taking a major leap into the unknown with Ireland. 

His time will come, that much seems obvious. The fact that Ryan isn’t already the Ireland captain doesn’t mean that his leadership within this team cannot grow over the coming months. The second row was formally inducted into Ireland’s leadership group before last year’s World Cup, so the process was already underway. Farrell can now push Ryan to assume more organisational and motivational responsibility.

Ryan is, first and foremost, a leader by example. He earns the respect of team-mates by working tirelessly on and off the pitch. His work-rate during games is consistently team-leading for province and country, illustrated by his remarkable tackle, carry and ruck counts.

But there is an inescapable feeling that there is more to come from Ryan – which should be true of any 23-year-old. He marked himself out as a major prospect in St Michael’s College because of his unique athletic ability and insatiable drive, but also because he had a very complete skillset for a schoolboy.

Ryan worked diligently on his passing and offloading as a teenager and those skills were part of the package that convinced those who saw him in those earlier days that the second row would be a star of Irish rugby.

james-ryan Ryan is a unique physical specimen. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Have we really seen those elements of Ryan’s armoury yet in Test rugby? We certainly shouldn’t underestimate the utter quality of the physical effort that Ryan delivers so relentlessly for Ireland at such a young age. He ekes out inches in the carry where they don’t seem possible. He savages ball-carriers in the tackle when they appear to have built momentum.

Those things should not be underappreciated – few forwards in Irish rugby can deliver them as consistently – but it’s difficult not to think there is more within Ryan’s potential. 

He has a more intuitive tendency for excellent footwork before carrying than most locks, while he has the decision-making skill to be a very complete defender, combining his ferocious trademark chop tackles with more stripping of ball-carries and choke tackles. 

At lineout time, it has been riveting to see Ryan become a genuine front-line defensive forward, earning seven lineout steals in the current season for country and province – second only to Peter O’Mahony’s 10. Ryan is now a serious threat to opposition throws.

He continues to work hard on his own lineout calling, a skill that a player as intelligent as him has always promised to excel at in Test rugby. Perhaps this is the Six Nations campaign where Ryan takes on the calling duties full-time, having performed the role on a handful of occasions before. There is little doubt Ryan will be willing to put in the hours required to be prepared in this department.

His scrummaging is regarded as a strength too, even at his relatively young age. Expect to see Ryan in behind Ireland’s tighthead prop again in this Six Nations, delivering the kind of consistent power that Paul O’Connell was often appreciated for. 

cj-stander-james-ryan-and-bundee-aki-during-the-anthems Ryan can still grow as a leader with Ireland. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The point in all of this is that, despite the deeply impressive quality Ryan has provided for Ireland so far over the course of his 23 caps, it looks like there is plenty more to come.

The fact that he hasn’t been tasked with captaining Ireland at this stage looks sensible. Muddying his focus with media duties and dealing with referees when he is genuinely still finding his voice in senior rugby might have been onerous.

That said, it might be no bad thing if Ryan gets a brief chance to taste the responsibilities at some stage in 2020. He made his Ireland debut before ever playing for Leinster at senior level, so it might be a promising development for him to do similar with the captaincy.

But the priority for Ryan is to continue growing as a player.

He will naturally become more influential within Ireland’s leadership group this year, while also looking to grow his passing, offloading, communication, tackling, scrummaging, and lineout skills.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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