James Ryan: ‘I understand now how hard it is to get to that point’

The Ireland lock admits he appreciated this year’s Grand Slam more than his first, and says Johnny Sexton’s injury gives even more importance to Saturday’s Leinster-Ulster duel

James Ryan played in every minute of Ireland's latest Grand Slam triumph. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

From Ireland v England on St Patrick’s weekend, and the million-plus viewers, to Leinster v Ulster this coming Saturday. Same venue, same full house, but different competition and different context. At face value, the adjustment certainly doesn’t look easy.

At the very least, being bulk suppliers to Ireland’s memorable 2023 Six Nations campaign must be a double-edged sword, and not just because of the inevitable injury toll.

Of the 18 Leinster players who contributed to the Slam, 16 of them played in at least part of the coronation against England two weeks ago.

Re-acquainting themselves with their UCD HPC and systems and calls and moves is one thing. That’s why they came back to ‘work’ last Wednesday. Recalibrating the motivation for a win-or-bust Champions Cup Last 16 tie at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday (kick-off 5.30pm) is entirely another. This is even truer against an Ulster team packed with players who were either in the Aviva stands a fortnight ago or watching at home, and at least a tad enviously.


Yet not so according to James Ryan.

“I think this week the mindset is just excitement. The Aviva is nearly sold out at this point; 52,000 supporters, with probably about 90 per cent Leinster fans. These are the weeks that you put all the work in for. These are the weeks that you live for in Leinster, so loads of excitement and loads of energy.”

Indeed, in this respect, a knockout European tie may sharpen the mind more than, say, a regular season URC game.

Ryan even goes so far as to say: “I think it’s easy this week. I think if you’re not motivated by this week then you’re probably in the wrong room. But yeah, it’s a big game and that comes with risks as well.”

This too from a key cog in Ireland’s Slam, not just for the voluminous work-rate in playing all 400 minutes, but in the quality of his aerial skills, his physicality, tackling and carrying. There were even two tries and an extraordinary 80-metre gallop in the Murrayfield endgame that frustratingly came within one offload of being the Irish try of the championship.

James Ryan is brought down during Ireland's Six Nations' win in Scotland. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

Ryan is now a more mature 26-year-old, as opposed to the mature-beyond-his-years 21-year-old in Ireland’s 2018 Grand Slam, when he started four of the five matches.

He’s also a little less guarded, more inclined to reveal the joker he is among the squad and those close to him. Ryan laughed when Rob Kearney told him to enjoy the 2018 Grand Slam, but he appreciates the advice better five years on.

“Yeah, I did enjoy it more than I did in 2018. Because I was just naive. It was ‘What’s this lad talking about, this old eejit?’ So yeah, I did enjoy it more this time because we’ve had days that have been a lot tougher and days that didn’t go our way.

“I understand now how hard it is to get to that point and how much effort it takes to get you there. I don’t think I’d the same understanding or appreciation as a 21-year-old,” he admits.

That 2017-18 season also featured Leinster’s fourth Heineken Cup triumph. One of Ryan’s more acute disappointments came a season later with a defeat in the final against Saracens. That followed an epic quarter-final win over Ulster at the Aviva in strikingly similar circumstances to this Saturday’s game, the memory of which is tarnished by the damage it did to the career of one of his fellow St Michael’s buddies.

Dan Leavy receives treatment on the pitch after suffering a knee injury in Leinster’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against Ulster at the Aviva Stadium in March 2019. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

“Dan Leavy is my first memory of it,” says Ryan of that 21-18 win. “But I remember it was a very, very close contest and it was a game that could have gone either way really. We were watching some of the clips from it this week and some of the footage is so loud - and that’s what it’s going to feel like this weekend.

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“I just remember the noise, and it felt like a Test match. It felt like an international game. I think those interpros always bring a little bit extra. There are 50,000-plus, how many teams are going to get that for a last-16 game? So, I think the whole occasion is going to be cool.”

The ensuing 11 meetings pale by comparison as a yardstick of what to expect from Ulster, but he anticipates Saturday’s contest to be as momentous as the 2018 clash.

“Yeah, big time. I think they’ll be hugely motivate coming down, like we will be. It’s a knock-out game as well. It’s not like a normal URC game. It’s not like a Six Nations game. If you lose, you’re out. You don’t get to repeat this next week, so there’s a lot at stake for both teams. It’s a different feel to the whole week.”

Having served as captain of every team he has played for, Ryan will have to assume more of a leadership role owing to the loss of Johnny Sexton, almost certainly for the remainder of the season.

Leinster tradition decrees that the most fitting way of honouring retiring players is for them to be presented with trophies whilst suited. Ryan knows no one deserves that more than Sexton.

“It’s a huge motivation. To be honest, this week is more about getting our performance right and not worrying too much about it. And that’s what he would want as well.

“But hopefully if we go well, that will become more and more of a driver for us because I think Leinster have had many great players over the last ten, 15, 20 years - players that I grew up watching - but I think he’s at the very top of the list,” Ryan admits, with words you know he does not use lightly.

“I think he’s the best ever. It’s another little driver for us. There is plenty there. But he has to come into it in some way.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times