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Dublin: 11°C Saturday 8 May 2021

'Nerves will play a part but it's a privileged position for us to be in'

James Ryan’s battle with Maro Itoje at St James’ Park on Saturday evening is just one of several fascinating match-ups.

WHILE LEO CULLEN’S Leinster stand on the brink of history, and have been here and done it many times before, clinching a record fifth European title will undoubtedly be the province’s greatest achievement.

Standing in their way this weekend is a well-oiled, heavy-loaded Saracens machine intent on completing their own perfect campaign with a third gold star after title wins in 2016 and 2017.

James Ryan Ryan's battle with Itoje will be fascinating this weekend. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Amidst the galaxy of stars set to take to the St James’ Park pitch on Saturday evening, and the mouth-watering and eye-catching individual match-ups expected to decide the clash of two European heavyweights, none stands out more than the latest renewal of James Ryan and Maro Itoje’s head-to-head rivalry. 

Both second rows have a valid argument to claim they are the best in their position in world rugby, let alone in the northern hemisphere, and their battle in Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup final will be intriguing.

It will be the fourth time they’ve been on opposite sides, with Ryan enjoying the better of their first two meetings during Leinster’s quarter-final success over Sarries last term, while also coming out on the right side in Ireland’s Grand Slam win at Twickenham.

But Itoje, Saracens’ totemic lock, showed all his quality as England raided the Aviva on the opening weekend of this year’s Six Nations, and their showdown this weekend will again pit two genuinely world-class players against each other.

“He’s world class,” Ryan says of his opposite number. “He’s so good over the ball, a great ball carrier but look at George Kruis too and you’ve got [Will] Skelton coming off the bench, so that’s three world-class locks there. It’s an abundance of riches they have in that position.

“We’ll certainly do our homework on Saracens but alongside that, the focus this week will be to keep working on our strengths and what makes us good. Hopefully, we can go out there at the weekend and play Leinster rugby. Everybody has got to be comfortable on the ball and willing to express themselves. That’s what we’re going to look to do.”

After helping Leinster to a fourth star in his debut season as a professional, Ryan has again raised his performances for club and country this year, firmly cementing his status as one of the leading locks, alongside Itoje, in the game.

Even in Devin Toner’s injury-enforced absence, Ryan showed his growing leadership qualities to run the Ireland and Leinster lineout, most notably starring in the province’s European quarter and semi-final victories.

Against Ulster at the Aviva Stadium, Ryan was at his typical best, racking up an extraordinary 27 tackles and making 21 carries, before following that performance up with another similarly influential shift against Toulouse in the last four tie.

James Ryan The Leinster second row speaking to media this week. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Leinster will need him at his very best again this weekend.

“Yeah, I think everybody feels an onus and at this stage of the season, the guys that are picked for European Cup final have a huge responsibility because it has been a squad effort all season,” the 22-year-old continues.

“Whoever is not lucky enough to be selected, we have a huge onus there to deliver because the pressure is a privilege and to be in this position is fantastic. I think throughout the team, there will be an onus there to deliver.  

“We’re where we want to be, we want to be in finals rugby. We have at least two knockout games left which is great fans, who I think have been brilliant all season. We’re feeling good in what is a great week for the club.”

Ryan believes there is another big performance in this Leinster team, knowing they will need to go up another gear from the knockout wins over Ulster and Toulouse.

“We’ve had a pretty steady progression since the Ulster game,” he says.

I thought we looked more cohesive and more of a unit against Toulouse so hopefully that curve can keep going upward because we’re well aware it’s going to need a season’s best performance this weekend. Saracens are a different beast to Toulouse. They’re the only unbeaten team left in Europe, defensively they’re so strong. We’re going to need to crank it up a few notches this week.

The desire to stitch a record fifth star to the jersey burns brightly for Ryan.

He adds: “No team has ever won five European Cups so again that’s another piece of our motivation. We’re very performance-based this week as I think if we get too sidetracked with all of that, we’ll lose sight of what’s in front of us. What’s in front of us is, as I say, the in-form team in Europe.

“Definitely, the nerves play a part. I think the closer Saturday approaches the more nerves will play a part but as I said, it’s a privileged position for us to be in. You wouldn’t want it any other way, so, yeah, we’re excited.”

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Ryan Bailey

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