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Dublin: 11°C Tuesday 19 January 2021

'All I ever wanted to do is be a professional rugby player, since I could walk really'

The mature James Ryan is already making an impact for Ireland at the age of 21.

THE BLACK EYE, the bumps and bruises on his legs, the right cauliflower ear freshly drained of blood.

Already, at just 21, James Ryan is showing the signs of becoming a grizzled second row as he takes a seat in one of the quieter old rooms in Carton House.

The Ireland international admits that he is beginning to get frustrated by the perceptions that he is an injury-prone player, and it should be pointed out that the speed of his rise has been quite rare.

James Ryan Ryan has been impressive for Ireland. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Whatever about outside backs being fast-tracked, the second row is a position in Test rugby that has increasingly been seen as one where players need maturity and time for their bodies to become used to the demands.

Ryan is different, having been capped by Joe Schmidt even before he had made his Leinster debut. That Ryan is having such an impact in the Six Nations so early in his career is deeply impressive.

And while others of his age might come across as wide-eyed and excitable if they were in his shoes, Ryan is extremely level-headed about it all. He stresses that he understands how fortunate he is, but he doesn’t feel he can waste time being emotional about it.

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“All I ever wanted to do is be a professional rugby player, since I could walk really,” says Ryan. “It has always been the dream

“Obviously, I’m in a very lucky position, but I can’t be getting too sentimental or anything like that. In a week like this, we’ve got a huge Test match and if I lose track of that, I will get myself compromised. I’m staying process-focused.”

When pushed, he does say that there moments in which his achievements do briefly come into his consciousness.

“The bus to the game has stuck out for me,” says Ryan, “and then afterwards the best part of it all was probably spending time after the wins with my parents, my brother and my family,” he says. “Those are the bits that stand out for me.

“I’ll probably just sit back after the Six Nations and think about it.”

Ryan comes across as a very serious character and there is little doubt that his time in St. Michael’s College accelerated his professionalism, leaving him well prepared for this rise early in his career.

James Ryan Ryan missed the Italy game due to a groin niggle. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

While Ryan is said to be machine-like in his preparation, there is a likeable personality there too.

He is already in charge of selecting Ireland’s music in the gym and on the bus when they travel to training – a serious job that can bring with it a fair bit of slagging.

“Church [Cian Healy] bestowed on me the music duties, so I have a load of playlists now because I’ve been doing it for a while,” says Ryan. “So in the gym and the bus, yeah – it’s a hard job.

“Everybody likes different stuff so it’s such a range of music. I’ve got rap, house, dance music, everything. I’ve got some Irish classics. Church loves Christy Moore!”

Earlier in this Six Nations, flanker Dan Leavy also made the apparent revelation that Ryan likes to call himself ‘The Big Cheese’ but the lock shakes his head and smiles as he goes about disproving that story and has a bite back at Leavy.

“Dan ‘Lost My Wallet’ Leavy has had a few things to say. He seems to lose his wallet at convenient times.

“Whenever the coffees and lunches come around he can’t seem to find his wallet. That’s certainly not what I call myself. He calls me that.”

Ryan is studying history and politics in UCD and has a particular grá for learning about Irish history – “the Easter Rising, and then the Troubles as well, fascinates me” – but his current focus is solely on establishing himself and performing for Ireland.

He has been superb in the victories over France and Wales in this Six Nations but missed the Italy game due to a groin niggle.

James Ryan Ryan's athleticism has stood out for Ireland. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It has been suggested in some quarters that Ryan has been injury-prone so far in his career, with some worrying that it could hold him back, but the second row doesn’t buy into that talk.

“It does frustrate me a bit,” says Ryan of that kind of talk. “Most of the injuries I’ve had this year have been impact injuries.

“It’s more of a case of my body getting used to this level; they are all niggles. I just have to come to terms with that. I’ve been lucky the last few weeks, I haven’t picked up anything.”

He says he can feel his body adapting already.

“Yeah, you do. I had some shoulder issues but I have a big emphasis now on prehabbing that and working away and managing these little niggles, so further down the line they don’t become things that keep me out of the game. It’s just part of an experience I had to go through.”

Still so young, it may be another while before Ryan’s leadership qualities truly emerge with Ireland but he is not afraid to speak up even at this stage.

While there is experience around him, the second row has been a captain throughout his involvement with St. Michael’s and Leinster and Ireland’s underage teams.

“There are established leaders: Besty, Peter O’Mahony, Sexto, guys like that,” says Ryan. “They are the main leaders but out there [on the pitch], everybody has got to lead and be vocal and be energised.

“I’m no different. I have to be good in that area too because your body language, your energy, all of that is infectious. It’s important that whatever I rub off on the guy next to me is positive.

James Ryan The sky is the limit for the second row. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It is important to speak up [off the pitch], but not just for the sake of it though. I wouldn’t speak just for the sake of it but when I feel I need to, I think I’d say something, yeah.”

While there have been brief injury niggles, the pace and physicality of the game have been a step up, and the pressure on his shoulders is greater at Test level, Ryan says he hasn’t felt blown away by it at any stage.

“I don’t think it was a shock to the system,” says Ryan. “It was definitely a step up and I was definitely aware of it but I don’t think it was me going, ‘oh shit’.'”

It’s exciting for Ireland to think about what Ryan is capable of as he continues to grow into this level of the game. The sky is the limit.

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Murray Kinsella

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