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'He's probably been the form lock in the northern hemisphere over the last couple of seasons'

Leo Cullen was full of praise for James Ryan after the lock’s excellent display against Ulster.

Leinster lock James Ryan.
Leinster lock James Ryan.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

AT ONE POINT there was almost a sense of inevitability about how James Ryan’s career would unfold.

Back in 2017, an Ireland debut before his first appearance for the Leinster senior team set the hype train hurtling out of the station. Within a year he was a Grand Slam champion, playing a prominent role in Joe Schmidt’s all-conquering side during that glorious 2018 campaign. Pro14 and Champions Cup medals soon followed. 

Then he went and helped Ireland win a series in Australia for the first time since 1979. A few months later he was part of the team that made history against the All Blacks on a famous night at Lansdowne Road.

His first 23 games in professional rugby all ended up with Ryan on the winning team. Former pros spoke of him as a future Ireland captain in-waiting, a man who could set the standard in his position for the next decade.

Those incredible years came to mind while listening to Warren Gatland explain Ryan’s absence from his 37-man Lions squad earlier this month.

In no uncertain terms, Gatland made clear that he didn’t feel Ryan had the necessary physicality for the fight, referencing Leinster’s defeat to a powerful La Rochelle side and the “big, physical men” his Lions team will face in South Africa.

Those words will have stung Ryan, one of the standout performers in Leinster’s Rainbow Cup win over Ulster on Friday night.

On his first appearance since that Lions squad announcement, Ryan quickly went about making his presence felt by stealing two Ulster lineouts and was at the heart of an impressive defensive effort which kept the visitors to just one try in the first half, despite Dan McFarland’s side bossing possession and territory.

matty-rea-is-tackled-by-james-ryan-and-ross-byrne Ryan made 29 tackles against Ulster on Friday. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The lock was equally effective in the second period while also getting the ball in his hands more as Leinster took control to wrestle an unlikely result away from Ulster.

He finished with 29 tackles, nine carries and two turnovers. After the game it was put to his head coach, Leo Cullen, that Ryan had performed like a man on a mission.

“Yeah, definitely,” Cullen replied. 

James had a bit of a disjoined run. If you think of when we met up first (for the restart), an unbelievably innocuous incident in training where off the back of it he ends up having shoulder surgery. He has a little bit of a late start getting into the return to play, so you can sometimes chase the season a little bit. 

“A couple of bangs then during the Six Nations, and it just gets a bit disjointed.

“But James is such a great voice in the group already. He’s so young, still 24 years of age, has unbelievable experience built up and he’s very committed to the cause. It was good to see him get through 80 minutes there, and still going strong at the end.

“He’s going to get stronger and stronger.”

There is of course still a chance Ryan makes it to South Africa, and that point was at the heart of the conversation Cullen had with the player after Gatland had revealed his hand.

“He’s naturally disappointed, as you can imagine,” Cullen continued.

“In many ways he’s probably been the form lock in the northern hemisphere, you could argue, over the last couple of seasons, he’s won a European Cup, won a Grand Slam…

“As I said, this season, a bit disjointed for a few different reasons, but all you can focus on is the next thing, so that’s the most important bit and that’s what he was doing (against Ulster). So it was focus on the next challenge, try to play well and put his hand up so if something happens to somebody else, he’s hopefully ready to go. That’s all he can control at the moment.”

Leinster’s defeat of Ulster brings them to two wins and one defeat in the Rainbow Cup, with the province now heading into a two-week break before games against Glasgow and the Dragons.

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Since bowing out of Europe, they have clearly been taking the competition seriously, fielding strong teams against both Connacht and Ulster while other clubs have been dipping deeper into their reserves and testing different combinations.

Cullen acknowledged that it’s a difficult balance to strike. The young players want more minutes, the Lions want to stay sharp and others want to showcase their talents ahead of Ireland’s summer Tests.

“At least there is plenty still at stake for players,” he said. 

“The two Irish Tests, lots of guys will be keen to put their hands up and push for selection, particularly a lot of the young guys that are potentially going to be in the frame.

“The Lions guys, I think it’s important for those guys just to stay sharp and play. Then there’s also the next tier who are just kind of a little bit off in terms of getting selected or narrowly missed out on selection, so those guys need to keep themselves in the shop window.

“Lots of sub-plots going on there, but for us, we’ll have a little bit of a break and try and come back together then and have a decent bit of training time together. 

“As always, it’s a competitive group.” 

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Ciarán Kennedy

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