Murray Kinsella reports from Bilbao
CIAN HEALY REMEMBERS first seeing James Ryan playing in a club game up in the prop’s local parish, Clontarf.
“He was a string bean,” recalls Healy. “He was skinny, he was tall, he was talented.”
The ability was obvious, as it has been to anyone who has seen Ryan play since his early days as a St. Michael’s College student, but Healy probably didn’t realise that he would be winning a Champions Cup and a Grand Slam alongside Ryan by 2018.
Leinster scrum-half Luke McGrath was in sixth year at St. Michael’s when Ryan was still a second-year student, although he only realised that fact on Friday, 24 hours out from Ryan being man of the match in the province’s 15-12 win over Racing 92.
“I actually didn’t know,” says McGrath. “He’s a freak. I remember seeing him in school and knowing he was going to be some player. He was playing number eight in the Junior Cup, I think. He moved to the second row as he got older, but he’s incredible.”
Ryan’s team-mates are as bemused as the rest of us as to how a player of his age can already be such a dominant force for province and country in a position as brutally physical as the second row.
“What age is he, 21?” asks hooker Sean Cronin as he lauds Ryan’s quality.
McGrath has to double check that he has Ryan’s remarkable unbroken streak of wins as a professional rugby player correct.
“He hasn’t been beaten yet,” says McGrath. “21 now, is it?”
Healy, now a veteran of four Champions Cup victories, can’t quite believe what he has been seeing from Ryan since the beginning of his involvement with Leinster at senior level.
“It was jaw-dropping at the start,” says the prop. “You say, ‘Hold on a second, he doesn’t look like he can do what he’s doing.’ It’s class. He’s going on and on. Eventually, he’ll lose a game but we’ll pick him up and dust him off and send him out again.”
McGrath can’t get over how much of an impact Ryan has been making in contact, as he did once again yesterday versus Racing.
“He’s almost an extra back row out there,” says McGrath. “To have that physical presence at such a young age, he’s got an incredibly bright future.”
Ryan, whose father Mark played in the back row for Lansdowne and Leinster, possesses a mature mindset, one of the reasons he has been able to progress so quickly.
He has figured out the important pieces of preparing himself to thrive in professional rugby much sooner than most players of a similar age.
“You’re looking at him and he just gets it, what Joe is looking for, what Stuart and Leo are looking for,” explains Cronin.
Already, Ryan is an influence in this Leinster group.
“He’s got a special mindset,” says McGrath. “He’s incredibly determined. He’s come through captaining sides and the Ireland U20s as well.”
Indeed, Ryan has captained virtually every team he has played for so far and the expectation is that he will lead Leinster and Ireland in the future too.
“He’s spoken about so much and that tells a lot about the character he is,” says Healy. “He’s just blended in and dragged people together. It’s the same with a few of them, there are names that keep popping up from the young boys.
“Young names don’t normally pop up that often. When they’re constantly getting spoken of, they have a big influence on the squad.”
One man who has been a little less surprised by the swiftness of Ryan’s rise to the top is Leinster’s head coach, Leo Cullen.
A former high-quality second row himself, Cullen says Leinster’s coaching staff held some hope that if Ryan could stay injury-free he would achieve great things sooner rather than later.
“He was obviously on the national radar as well, the fact they brought him to the States and Japan and making his debut for Ireland before he made his debut for Leinster, it is such an unusual thing,” says Cullen.
“Clearly, he is one that has been earmarked for a long time. He is a great pro already, he is a wise head as well.
“He has good family support around him, which I think is important. He takes everything in his stride, it is pretty remarkable story what he has been through, not to have lost a game.”
The fact that Ryan was man of the match even on the biggest and most attritional occasion of Leinster’s season didn’t come as a shock to Cullen. He has seen the 21-year-old’s qualities up close more than most people have.
“We see him at training every day and, bloody hell, the numbers he is able to deliver on a regular basis, training-wise as well as all of the games,” says Cullen.
“There is what you see and then you get all the different reports in about the game.
“We are lucky to have him, he is a special talent. It is just important to manage him because the big thing is you want guys who can play for Leinster and Ireland for a long time, so we need to make sure we pick our battles with guys as well.”
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