Tangles at Twickenham, bringing 'the edge', and a conversation with O'Connell

23-year-old James Ryan was particularly aggressive as Ireland lost to England on Sunday.

THERE WAS A real edge to James Ryan in Twickenham on Sunday, an aggression that was all the more obvious for the comparative lack of it from some of those around him. 

The 23-year-old always delivers a mountain of physicality and dynamism for Ireland but last weekend was about as fired-up as we’ve ever seen the second row.

Sitting in Dublin city centre this morning, two days on from Ireland’s comprehensive defeat, Ryan bears the marks of a deeply physical encounter.

There’s a very noticeable graze extending from beside his nose across and down the left side of his mouth, which he thinks came about when Courtney Lawes accidentally made contact with his face.

england-v-ireland-guinness-six-nations-twickenham-stadium Source: David Davies

Ryan’s shoulders are still feeling the effects of his toil at Twickenham, where the lock was involved in a heated exchange with Ellis Genge at one stage and tangled with the grandmaster of niggle, Maro Itoje, on another occasion.

This looked like a very pissed-off version of James Ryan but he says there was no particular reason for the additional fire apart from looking to front up against the English.

“We spoke during the week about how we needed to be aggressive, we needed to be physical,” says Ryan.

“England have a massive pack, a lot of their game is based around that physicality, so it was a key message for us heading into the game, we just knew we had to be pretty abrasive in that respect.

“Playing in Twickenham, playing against England, the opportunity for a Triple Crown, we were always going to be fired up, combative. Probably the disappointing thing was that we didn’t show it enough.”

Ryan can’t be accused of failing to show his combativeness. He made five dominant tackles in Ireland’s defeat, with Itoje the only player to hit harder with six. Ryan chipped in with 13 carries for Ireland, fighting for inches in the tight, as he always does.

In a very busy performance, Ryan arrived at 37 Irish rucks and was the first man in on 33 of those occasions – more than any other player across the entire Six Nations weekend in both departments.

The official Six Nations stats also credit him with 13 cleanouts – in other words, where he genuinely shifted an English player – and there was some outstanding work from Ryan in that regard. 

james-ryan Ryan was fired up at Twickenham. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There were also a couple of borderline ruck hits from the Leinster man that some referees would have viewed as illegal, and England took issue with a few of them. In that regard, Ryan feels that having an aggressive streak is essential but appreciates that he needs to have balance too.

“When you’re at your best, you’ve got that edge about you,” says Ryan. “You’ve gotta play right on the edge, at the same time you’ve got to be thinking clearly enough to make decisions, to see pictures, to get set early, to understand messages that are coming from the generals in the team.

“So it’s kind of that balance between ‘red head’ and ‘blue head’.”

While Ryan was clearly annoyed at times – tangling with Itoje after the lock clung onto both CJ Stander and Ryan long after the ball had left a ruck, then later shoving Genge when he had celebrated England winning a scrum penalty – he doesn’t think England’s players were more niggly than usual, underlining that the Irish players are used to that kind of needle.

“They do that quite a bit, they are into that ‘energising’ thing they do. They do the same with Saracens – they’re very vocal, very loud.

“If one of them makes a hit, you definitely know about it even if you haven’t seen it because there might be five or six of them cheering each other on.”

Ryan shrugs his shoulders and accepts that what happens on the pitch stays on the pitch.

England’s approach was by far the more effective on Sunday and Ryan has no qualms admitting that Ireland didn’t front up to the necessary extent against the English power and precision.

He points out that two Irish errors allowed England into a 14-0 lead after 25 minutes but his real regrets lie in Ireland failing to be “consistent or relentless enough with that kind of physicality, that aggression, that we needed to be. We lost it on that front.”

maro-itoje-and-james-ryan Itoje and Ryan tangle as a ruck breaks up. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

While Ryan learned a lesson the hard way in London, he had the opportunity to pick up some nuggets of rugby wisdom in a far more enjoyable manner last week as Paul O’Connell visited the squad for the build-up to Sunday’s game.

Ryan has obviously been compared to O’Connell on many occasions, so it was exciting for supporters to see the pair of them photographed chatting at an Ireland training session last week. 

As one might have expected, Ryan didn’t miss the opportunity to sit down with O’Connell for a more in-depth conversation when the legendary former Munster and Ireland lock was in camp.

“It was brilliant,” says Ryan. “I got to sit down and have a chat with him one of the nights and it was cool for me. He’s obviously been through a lot, seen it all, and we just had an open, flowing conversation.

“He talked about some of his experiences, I talked about some of mine and how they compared.

“One thing I took from it was the level of thought and planning he put into his training week. As opposed to a player who goes on the training field and trains for 40 or 60 minutes and leaves and goes back into the changing room, he knew exactly what he was doing before training and post-training.

“So it was little one-percenters like that, something I can take from him that was interesting for me. He just put a lot of thought into his training week.

“From that, to how he felt leading up to games, what was his sleep like, what he did on the day of games, lots of little things. A lot of the things would have been similar but just getting his viewpoint on preparation and the mental side of the game was cool.

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“I had read his book a few years ago as well. I couldn’t remember all the details but I had an idea of some of the things. He did it all in the game really so it was a privilege to have a conversation. It was great for me.”

paul-oconnell-with-james-ryan Ryan with O'Connell at training last week. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

While many people believe Ryan should already be the Ireland captain, he is very much of the mindset that he still has plenty to learn, both as a player and a leader.

Ryan made three passes against England, one of them a clever link pass out the back door to Johnny Sexton early in the game, and this is one area where he feels he can grow. 

Having been a skillful lock during his schools rugby days with St Michael’s, there is certainly ability there and Ryan looks to one of the All Black greats in his position for a role model.

“I’m trying to work on that,” says Ryan. “I’m trying to work on my scanning so I can see pictures early and get into good positions early, then when I’m there I can use that handling.

“I think Brodie Retallick does it very well, his handling is world-class. He threatens the line and he plays it late or he’s able to play that late tip-on pass probably because he scans and he sees the pictures really early, so when he gets into that position he’s not rushed and he’s able to make those passes either front door or out the back.

“Handling is definitely an area of the game that I’m working on and [Ireland attack coach] Mike Catt has come in and is big on that, he’s been class on that. I’m learning loads from him and trying to improve in that regard.”

While improving that handling and decision-making quality at Test level will help to make Ryan a more complete player, he appreciates that the set-piece is a core focus for any lock and sees scope for improvement there too.

“I’m doing a lot of work with [Ireland's] John Fogarty scrummaging-wise and Robin McBryde has come into Leinster and done a superb job. A lot of the stuff would be set-piece, my scrummaging.

“Lineout-wise, it would be my speed, my movement, my shape in the air, all little components of that area that make a difference when added up.”

Ryan finishes by underlining that an aggressive edge is something he and Ireland will always be striving to deliver.

“I’m always looking to bring that edge as much as I can.

“I think when we have that as a team, we can be really hard to beat.”

James Ryan is brand ambassador for Irish super supplement range Revive Active which includes Zest Active, an everyday nutritional supplement with 25 active ingredients, delivering multiple benefits in 1 handy powdered sachet. 

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Murray Kinsella

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