“IT REMINDED ME a bit of Paul O’Connell, in the way he took on the ball, finding soft shoulders consistently.”
The comparison between James Ryan and Paul O’Connell has been made a few times already in the 21-year-old’s burgeoning career, but it carries that little but more weight when it’s Malcom O’Kelly drawing the link.
The 92-times capped former Ireland international and twice Lions tourist knows a thing or two about the cornerstones and intricacies of second row play.
O’Kelly was a stalwart for Ireland in the early days of the O’Connell era, when the Limerick man was establishing himself before going on to become a giant of the global game.
Now 43-year-old O’Kelly has been aware of Ryan’s talent for some time, but even he was surprised to see Joe Schmidt pitching the Leinster lock into Ireland’s starting team for last weekend’s Six Nations clash in Paris.
The performance Ryan delivered on his championship debut only strengthened O’Kelly’s conviction that Ryan can be a special player.
“I’ve been watching James with a keen interest. I’m such a big fan of his, so for him to get a start in France was a big call – but he was superb, superb,” says O’Kelly.
“His lines of running were, against the grain especially, like watching a senior player. I wouldn’t say he ‘came of age’ because it was his first Six Nations game, but the guy showed remarkable seniority and leadership to take so many balls on, he took on 16 or 17.
“For a second rower, a big guy who has a big target on him, he’s done incredibly well to find so many soft shoulders when there really wasn’t many. It was a tight blue line and there wasn’t too much space but he seemed to find it.
“He’s got all the skills too, some of his offloading – I remember one on the touchline, just before the second penalty, you could see his ability to take on the defenders and offload back to Johnny [Sexton], who went right and wide, I didn’t see that coming.”
Having been a leader throughout his school days with St. Michael’s College and various underage representative teams, Ryan is “already captain material” in O’Kelly’s eyes.
It’s thought that Ryan has had his workload managed in the aftermath of his efforts at Stade de France and he may play no part against Italy this weekend.
The young lock has had some injury issues this season and O’Kelly believes that this will prove the greatest challenge in Ryan’s development.
“He has quite a narrow frame, but I believe he’s well built, a real solid lad. He’s only 21. He’ll pick up knocks as he goes along, it takes a while to get hardy. He needs to be minded, but he’s luckily he’s in Ireland, they’ll look after him.
“The path is there for him – injuries are the main concern.”
Another former Ireland lock who has seen up close just how good Ryan can be is Mike McCarthy.
The 36-year-old, whose agreed move to Narbonne fell through due to him being forced to retire through injury, trained with Ryan in Leinster last season and discovered a young man with a huge thirst to learn.
“I remember being injured in the gym because I didn’t play much last season with injuries, and James Ryan was injured with a hamstring injury and he had a big frame. 6ft 8ins, a similar height to Mal, but he needed to bulk up a bit.
“Speaking to [Ireland scrum coach] Greg Feek last week, he’s put on like 5kgs in the last year and he looks really big.
“He really wants to learn. Whatever I could offer him, I’m not sure what it was, but I remember him asking me about sacking mauls once and maybe that’s one area I was not too bad at.
“He asks questions, he’s always looking to improve and he led the U20s to second place [at the 2016 World Championship], so he’s got those leadership qualities. People are talking about is he the next Paul O’Connell, and you can see he’s got the leadership there as well.”
The less glamorous parts of lock play, such as sacking mauls, are next on the agenda for Ryan to perfect, but McCarthy sees no reason why the young Leinster man can’t reach the very top of the game.
“I think it’s the dark arts,” explains McCarthy. “You learn what you can do and what you can get away with, whether that’s small things like lines of running, trying to block people and create space for someone else. There’s plenty you pick up along the way.
“When I think back to when I was a young fella, I didn’t have a clue about some of the stuff. It’s frightening to think that he’s only going to get that experience. He’s 21, inexperienced, but he’ll probably be playing on the next Lions tour, in my opinion.”
If Ryan is to sit out this weekend’s game against the Italians, Devin Toner is likely to return to Ireland’s starting team, now in a clear battle for his place.
O’Kelly has huge respect for the quality Toner has delivered for Ireland under Schmidt and points to his durability as perhaps being something Ryan can learn from.
“It’s all about whether or not [Ryan] can sustain performance,” says O’Kelly. “His first cap [in the Six Nations], he had a great game, and that’s great, but you know, if he wants to be a 100 cap second row for Ireland, then that means doing it for Leinster 250 times.
“It’s a long road and you need durability. One thing I always say about Dev, Dev does not get injured. No matter how good James Ryan is, Dev will get another 20 or 30 caps.
“I think Devin’s performances this season have been his best. I think he’s come on so much. He’s dominating and he’s getting across gainlines. Against Montpellier, the gainlines he was making, I can’t remember him finding them so easily.
“Devin was always a very tough competitor but he was a lovely guy so you kind of wondered does he have that competitive edge. But he’s proven it, 50 caps for Ireland.
“He’s been under some great Leinster second rows like [Nathan] Hines, Brad Thorn, Leo [Cullen], he’s taken a lot of that on board and he’s always had to deal with some lad coming in and throwing 120kgs on the bench and lifts it and Dev and has to ratchet it up three more rungs just so he can take it down.
“You have no idea how big a frame he has. It means that those guys who can pump loads of weights fall off and get injured but Dev is Dev. He doesn’t get , he injures people.”
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