For James Ryan it was still good to be back after being defeated by Ulster

Ryan last played off the bench in Ireland’s third-round Six Nations win over Wales before damaging his bicep in training

James Ryan has had worse defeats in his career. Although the bitterness of the loss to Ulster at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday night was uppermost in his thoughts soon afterwards, the 27-year-old lock knew that he had come through his first game in a dozen weeks to prove his fitness seven days out from Leinster’s Champions Cup final against Toulouse.

Despite it all, it was good to be back.

“Yeah, I missed it. You miss it when you’re not playing, you just feel outside it when you’re injured. I just thoroughly enjoyed the week, being back in. We had a great group coming up to Belfast. There was a good mix between experience and youth. I love being back.”

Ryan last played off the bench in Ireland’s third-round Six Nations win over Wales before damaging his bicep in training. The prognosis was always three months and, bang on cue, he returned a week out from the Champions Cup final and, it seems, never doubted that he would.

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“I was always confident it was going well. The lads did a great job in terms of the rehab, they probably don’t get enough credit for that the medical staff in Leinster and Ireland. They did a fantastic job.

“It’s thanks to the great work from the lads over the last 10 weeks. Einar [Einarsson] out in the [IRFU] HPC, he’s been brilliant for me. I’m happy to be back fit and it felt like I was pretty robust out there.”

Leo Cullen admitted that “ideally” both Ryan and the returning Hugo Keenan would have been excused the full 80 minutes but shoulder injuries to Brian Deeny and Charlie Ngatai, as well as an apparent hamstring/thigh strain for the unlucky Tommy O’Brien, decreed otherwise.

But while he strengthens his case for inclusion, Ryan admitted: “I have to see what happens. The boys are going well and I’ve been out for quite a while. What I can control is my performance tonight and see what happens.”

His desire to play next Saturday is hardened by the memory of being forced off after half an hour due to a head knock with Leinster just about to go 23-7 ahead against La Rochelle in arguably the pivotal moment of last year’s final. He had played like a man on a mission, largely neutralising Will Skelton.

“There was a lot of hurt at the time, that was always going to be an emotional game. It was a home final at the Aviva. It was almost a once in a lifetime opportunity, I guess there was a lot of emotion went into it. Like there was a few weeks ago.”

A final between the competition’s two most successful sides holds particular resonance for Ryan.

“I was over at the Leinster v Toulouse win when Denis Hickie was playing,” he recalls of the epic 41-35 quarter-final win in Toulouse in 2006 when he was nine-years-old.

“I was quite young but I still remember it. It was such a big win for Leinster at the time, quite an upset. Toulouse, they’ve won it five times, they’re the most successful team in the competition. It’s an amazing opportunity. Good memories, I went over with my two brothers and my dad and a good family friend of ours.

“I’m sure it’ll be an incredible occasion,” he added. “It’s the stuff of dreams for a kid who followed Leinster, who grew up wanting to play rugby for Leinster – days like that. We need to learn from this and move on, because it’s a huge week.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times