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Ryan humbled by awards but intent on hitting new levels this season

The Ireland second row is hoping to return to Japan, having won his first cap during the 2017 summer tour.

IF IT WAS an achievement for James Ryan to earn his first international cap before he had made his senior provincial debut during Ireland’s 2017 summer tour, what he has done since ahead of a return to Japan is even more amazing.

Many rugby supporters first came across the totemic Leinster second row during that tour to USA and Japan two years ago, when Joe Schmidt travelled with a young squad, but it didn’t take long for Ryan’s stock and reputation to rise.

James Ryan Ryan during pre-season training with Ireland. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A try-scoring Test debut against USA was followed by a second cap against Japan in Tokyo, but few who stayed up to watch those games would have predicted the immense impact Ryan has gone on to have in a green shirt in such a short space of time.

The 23-year-old enjoyed a peerless debut season in professional rugby at both club and international level, establishing himself as a key player for Leinster and Ireland during their double-winning and Grand Slam-winning campaigns respectively.

And Ryan followed that up with another consistently excellent year in 2019, further cementing his status as one of the best second rows in the world with a series of influential displays in blue and green.

His performances were recognised by his team-mates as Ryan won the Leinster Players’ Player of the Year and Rugby Players Ireland Player of the Year awards, while last night he was named the Guinness Rugby Writers of Ireland Men’s Player of the Year.

Now, after a short summer break, the former St Michael’s man is gearing up for his first World Cup and a return to Japan, not as an international rookie, but as a key cog in Schmidt’s wheel.

“Looking back, winning the Players’ Player award was really humbling to win, getting that recognition from the players, that was an accolade I’ll look back on,” he says.

“I like to think that my game has been steadily improving from season to season so I think in the 12 months I was pretty happy that I made progress and improvements across my game.

“I was delighted to receive those awards. I enjoyed my holidays maybe a bit more as a result because it’s humbling to get that recognition. But certainly when your season starts there’s always something in front of you and especially what we have coming up in September, so my focus did shift pretty quickly from last season.

“Even though it wasn’t very long ago it feels like a distant memory now in many ways.”

Ryan finished off the 2018/19 season by helping Leinster to back-to-back Pro14 titles in Glasgow, adding to his growing collection of winner’s medals, having claimed a Grand Slam crown with Ireland and that European and league double with his native province the season previous.

But for all the awards and recognition, Ryan is not one to bask in the glory, rather humbly and reluctantly accept the accolades that come with his performances, and then quickly turn the page towards the next challenge. 

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James Ryan celebrates at the final whistle Celebrating Leinster's Pro14 win in May. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Ryan has always taken it all in his stride, never ceasing to amaze with the level of performance he has consistently produced, and now he wants to bring that to the biggest stage of all.

On the back of an intense six-week block of pre-season work, there has been a giddy excitement around Ireland’s Carton House camp this week, as the players narrow the focus on the first warm-up game.

Fitness permitting, Ryan is a shoo-in for Schmidt’s 31-man squad but, as is his nature, the lock is not getting ahead of himself, instead choosing to focus on getting on the plane first and foremost. 

“I’ve given much thought to the fact that, you know, you’ve got to get there first,” he continues. “Hopefully if you put in committed and accurate performances we’ll have a squad that can compete with anybody.

But yeah, playing on a world stage for your nation is where you want to be. It’s the dream of any athlete so if I was picked it would be, I’m sure, an unbelievable experience.

“I’d be lying if I said it [the Scotland game] wasn’t at the back of my mind. Of course it is, it’s a massive game but if you think of it, four Test matches coming up, that’s a lot of rugby to be played.

“Guys are going to be injured, unfortunately, that’s the nature of the game and the only thing you can be thinking about if you want to get on the plane is your performance in the warm-up games.

“So while it’s at the back of my mind, we’re not really looking too far ahead this week in terms of what’s coming up.”

Ryan adds: “It’s a really competitive squad, there’s so much competition so the thought process is making sure that when you do get an opportunity in a warm-up game you’re putting in a committed and accurate performance because the competition is so high that there is no certainty for anybody really. So that’s my thought process really.”

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Ryan Bailey

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