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Dublin: 7°C Thursday 22 October 2020

'It’s not even just that he’s a great athlete, but he adores training, he loves the gym'

21-year-old James Ryan has been earmarked for success since an early age.

BY THE TIME James Ryan was a third-year student in St. Michael’s, playing in the Dublin school’s Junior Cup team for a second season, word was well and truly out about his major potential.

The try below came in the first round of the Junior Cup against Castleknock and underlined Ryan’s ability to those who hadn’t seen him play yet.

Source: stmcrugby/YouTube

The footwork, the fend and the pace all demonstrated Ryan’s athleticism but even such a thrilling score wasn’t a surprise to the coaches who had been working with him in his earliest secondary school years.

The now 21-year-old will win his first Six Nations cap for Ireland this evening against France [KO 4.45pm] as a starter, having impressed over the course of his four previous appearances under Joe Schmidt against the US, Japan, South Africa and Argentina.

Ryan has long been earmarked for achievements like this. He has long been seen as a future Test star and it seems likely that he will go on to become a key player for Schmidt’s Ireland in the coming years.

St. Michael’s director of rugby Andy Skehan coached Ryan throughout his years in the school, as did former Ireland, Leinster and Munster scrum-half Brian O’Meara, who teaches in the Ailesbury Road institution.

Both of Ryan’s former coaches are unsurprised at how quickly he has risen through the ranks after leaving school – from playing Leinster Schools Senior Cup rugby in 2015 to his Ireland debut in the summer of 2017 and now a Six Nations start.

“I’ve encountered a lot of good players in here over the last 10 or 12 years and he’s got the strongest drive I’ve ever come across,” says Skehan.

“Dan Leavy [who is on the Ireland bench today, along with former St. Michael's scrum-half Luke McGrath] had a strong drive, but James just had this unbelievable desire to succeed that he could apply on such a consistent, daily basis that I hadn’t seen before.”

Ireland’s James Ryan Ryan starts in the second row for Ireland today against France. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Having come through St. Michael’s primary school, Ryan “ran amok” as a first-year student within his own age group before making a big impact when he moved into the Junior Cup side as a second-year and helped them into the final, a defeat to Blackrock.

Taking over as captain in third year, Ryan led Michael’s to the title with a final victory over Newbridge, showing the kind of resilience that has become a feature of his game.

“He played in that final with a torn medial ligament,” recalls O’Meara. “He was on crutches for three or four weeks afterwards but he got man of the match, made a try-saving tackle in the last five minutes. His pain threshold is phenomenal.”

Skehan remembers it well:

“He tore his medial ligament during the game and didn’t tell anyone and played on as if it had no effect. He was doing unbelievable stuff.

“We had a missed tackle and he covered it, threw your man on the ground, got his hands on the ball and turned it over on the five. In the final lineout of the game, Newbridge had a chance to launch an attack when we were up by five points and, of course, he steals the lineout and we win.”

Ryan’s performances saw him subsequently earn selection for the Leinster Schools side the following season, even before he had played a friendly game for St. Michael’s senior team.

“So straight from the Junior Cup and into the Leinster Schools team, which is very unusual,” says Skehan.

Ryan – who also played in the back row as a youngster – stood out for many reasons but his pure athleticism was chief among them. As he moved up through the ranks, captaining Leinster Schools and U19s, as well as the Ireland Schools in his second year with that side, Ryan impressed more and more with his physical prowess.

James Ryan Ryan in Junior Cup action all the way back in 2011. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“JR is a phenomenal athlete,” says O’Meara. “It’s not even just that he’s a great athlete, but he adores training, he loves the gym. The biggest compliment I could give him is that he is just a big sponge, he wants to learn.

“If he saw me doing a skill session with the backs, he’d want to join in, or he’d want a separate session. Then it was hard to keep him out of the gym at times, to be honest.

“That’s something for him, probably not overtraining. His dad used to always be on to us to get him out of the gym and doing something else.”

Far from being solely based on physicality, Ryan always worked diligently on his handling and offloading skills.

“His ball handling for a second row was the best I’ve seen,” says Skehan in underlining how complete a player Ryan was in school. “He was a lineout caller and he was incredibly physical.

“He’s not got a hulking frame so he’s had to work hard to build that. You look at him and think, ‘Is he a Launchbury build or an O’Connell build?’ He’s definitely an O’Connell-type build, a more all-action second row. He’s a powerful scrummager as well, but he’s that athletic type of lock.”

Ryan comes from good rugby stock, with his father, Mark, having played for Lansdowne and Leinster in the back row.

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Ryan’s twin brother, also Mark, was a fine rugby player in school but suffered bad knee injuries in his Junior Cup and Senior Cup years to prevent him from fulfilling his potential.

“Mark has never been jealous of James’ success, he’s always there supporting and that’s such a nice touch as well,” says O’Meara.

David Ryan kicks a conversion David Ryan in action for Michael's at Donnybrook this week. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The current captain of the St. Michael’s Senior Cup side is Ryan’s younger brother, David, an intelligent centre who is also a fine athlete.

The entire Ryan family will be watching on with pride today as Ryan gets his first Six Nations cap, and both of his former St. Michael’s coaches underline that the second row will be kept well grounded by those closest to him.

While Ryan is still in the process of establishing himself in the Ireland and Leinster set-ups, it won’t be long until his leadership comes to the fore.

Ryan has captained almost every team he has been part of, including the Ireland U20s when they reached the World Championship final in 2016. While Ryan can come across as a shy young man, his former coaches have seen the power of his leadership.

“He’s not the leader who leads by barking and shouting,” says Skehan, who also coached Ryan with UCD last season. “He’s the kind of guy who, when he speaks, you listen. He’s serious and he’s very good at disciplining the teams he’s captaining.

“He’ll have a private word with a player and the coaches might not even know what that word is.”

The fact that Ryan was so good at enforcing and policing the standards within his teams also stood out to O’Meara, who explains that even Ryan’s coaches were not exempt from his demands for quality.

“He was captain in my last year with the SCT in Michael’s and he doesn’t talk a lot but when he does it’s a bit like, I don’t know, maybe Paul O’Connell or Ronan O’Gara – it’s very accurate and very important, and he has a very fierce presence about him.

James Ryan Ryan playing in the Senior Cup final in 2013. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“He doesn’t just speak in random generics. If he says something it’s factual, it’s very narrow-focused. He wants to know what’s going on in this area of the field, he wants clarity in his rugby.

“He would give out to any coach in Michael’s if he wasn’t happy – ‘I’m not happy with this, this was a poor training session or drill.’

“He’d be the first to go up to a coach and say, ‘That’s not good enough’ or to another player and say, ‘Your attitude is not good enough.’ He was an unbelievable captain and he will be an unbelievable captain.”

That constant drive to push himself further will stand to Ryan even as he deals with the inevitable travails that professional rugby will bring.

“Look, rugby is a strange sport and everything can change in a week,” says O’Meara. “A lot of the Michael’s lads coming through at the moment probably haven’t had to endure any hardship yet.

“We might have had 15 or 16 guys come through into Leinster and none of them has had a career-ending injury, none have missed a kick to lose a cup or been notably dropped.

“We’re all on a high, so the big thing for James is that at some stage he’s going to have to deal with disappointment – whether it’s a match or whatever.”

But O’Meara is convinced that Ryan has the strength of character, honesty and determination to bounce back from the challenges that come his way.

James Ryan Ryan at the Stade de France yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“He’s such a driven young man. I taught him history for Leaving Cert and he was a pleasure to deal with in class, he’s got a great personality. He can be a bit shy at first but when you get to know him he really comes out of himself.

“His rise is great and the reason we’re proud of James and the other guys who are doing well is not just because they’re good rugby players but because they work hard, they study hard, they get on with teachers, they’re affable, their families are good people and they’re grounded. We take more pride in that than anything else.”

Skehan underlines his belief that Ryan will stay focused even as his stock continues to rise and he has little doubt that the 21-year-old’s seemingly insatiable desire to get better will bring him to lofty heights.

“I know there’s a lot more in him and he’s already showing great stuff on a weekly basis,” says Skehan. “He needs more experience and he’s so self-critical, I sometimes think he needs to relax a bit.

“He will be buzzing for this and every challenge he comes up against he just gets into it so easily. In 2015, he was playing in schools matches and now this.”

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