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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 24 April, 2019
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James Ryan is already one of the best in the world at the age of 21

The second row was magnificent once again as Leinster overcame Racing in Bilbao.

Murray Kinsella reports from San Mamés, Bilbao

21 GAMES AS a professional, 21 wins.

James Ryan is still just 21 years of age but as his remarkable run in the pro game continues, he has already become one of the best players in the sport.

It’s not just the results that count, of course, but Ryan’s performances in many of those fixtures have been important factors in the positive outcomes for Leinster and Ireland.

Jonathan Sexton, Jamison Gibson-Park and James Ryan celebrate at the final whistle Ryan greets the final whistle with joy. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He was a key figure as Joe Schmidt’s Ireland drove to a Grand Slam this year and his form has much been of the same calibre in a Leinster jersey, with his man-of-the-match showing in today’s dramatic 15-12 Champions Cup final win over Racing the latest in a long string of outstanding displays.

Rarely before has such a young player been such a dominant physical presence. Ryan lives for the contact, collisions and the contest.

He got through another 11 carries and 12 tackles in Bilbao, with so many of them being the kind of small wins that make a difference in a ferocious, Test-level encounter of this nature.

Ryan is intelligent in how he uses his body – accelerating, twisting, dipping, exploding, decelerating, fighting, and leg-driving at just the right times to eke his way beyond the gain line and present the ball cleanly.

His tackle technique against bulkier ball carriers is very often educational in its quality, as he drives in low at the legs with the kind of venomous wrap of the arms that instantly kills their ability to gain yards after the first contact.

At lineout time, Ryan and Leinster had their troubles against Racing’s defence — the best in the competition and brilliant here once again — but there were some important wins under pressure from Donnacha Ryan too.

Racing’s Irish lock, let us not forget, was a starter under Schmidt up until relatively recently and his departure to France meant Ireland lost one of their main second rows.

James Ryan receives the Heineken Man of the Match award from Marta Garcia Ryan was man of the match. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The worries over his absence have largely been eased with the startling emergence of Leinster’s Ryan, though.

The former St. Michael’s student was marked out from a very early stage as a player of rich potential, with Leinster and Schmidt taking a keen interest.

Ryan was always likely to be fast-tracked after captaining the Ireland U20s and that proved to be the case as Schmidt capped him in Japan last summer, the second row making an instant impact in setting up a try after being introduced from the bench.

The Dublin man’s mindset is a key factor in his rise — he has expected and targeted every bit of this success. Ryan is not a cocky man, far from it, but he has an expectation of competing with and beating the best in the world.

Ryan’s professionalism is also beyond his years, with analysis, recovery and pre-habilitation efforts similar to those of a much more experienced player who learned the hard way how important those elements are.

In the rain at San Mamés, Ryan once again showed the results of his preparation as he looked as fresh as ever, even after what has been a demanding campaign that has seen him consistently deliver.

It is frightening to imagine just how much Ryan could achieve in the game if he can steer clear of severe injuries in the years to come.

James Ryan celebrates with team mates Ryan gets in on the celebrations. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

With his proven leadership skills in underage rugby already beginning to become apparent in senior professional rugby, the prospect of him captaining Leinster and Ireland is very real too.

There will inevitably be tough times and it seems unlikely that every season will be as good as this one for Ryan, but his current ability and potential to become even better are thrilling for Leinster and Irish rugby.

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Murray Kinsella

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