Break allows James Ryan to rest, bulk-up and study history
It’s also allowed him to catch up with his studies in History and Politics at UCD
James Ryan is looking forward to being back on a rugby field. Photograph: Inpho
Paul O’Connell reckons more seasoned players will reap the biggest benefits from this extended break. Players in their late 20s and 30s, who’ve been on the treadmill for years, will come back particularly refreshed and revived. But it could have its plus side for some of the relatively younger generation too, for mind and body.
James Ryan may only be 23, but since Joe Schmidt propelled him into the Irish team on the 2017 summer tour of the USA and Japan, it’s hard to think of an introduction to the pro game quite like Ryan’s. Underlining his pedigree status, not only did he make his test debut before his provincial debut (ala Brian O’Driscoll) but of Ryan’s 63 first-class matches, 26 have been tests and 23 in the Heineken Cup, with 14 in the Pro14.
It’s been seriously full-on.
So this enforced break has enabled him to take stock, overcome some niggles and even bulk up a little. It’s also allowed him to catch up with his studies in History and Politics at UCD.
Ryan’s family are, of course, steeped in the history of Irish politics, his great grandfather of the same name having been a doctor in the GPO during the Easter 1916 Rising before becoming one of the founding fathers of Dail Éireann and a long-serving Fianna Fail minister.
“That’s been one positive,” he confirms. “It’s been a bit of a blessing. That boredom can be challenging, whereas between training I’ve been able to keep relatively well occupied, which has been good.”
He has a particular love for Irish revolutionary history, while his recent essays have concerned the Middle East and Nazi Germany. “Both are fascinating topics. I’m learning about the Weimar Republic, which was Germany before it transcended into the Third Reich, when the Nazis came to power.
“The last essay was about the Battle of Stalingrad, and why that that was such a decisive turning point in World War II. They call it possibly the most decisive and the bloodiest battle in modern warfare,” Ryan adds of a battle that lasted over five months and took an estimated two million lives.
“The average lifespan of a soldier in the battle was 24 hours, which is pretty insane to think about. But even just the mindset of the Russians, or the Soviet Union as it was then, and not only the soldiers but the civilians, who actually stayed put when the Germans invaded the city.
“Stalin issued a decree, Order 227 it was called, which said ‘not a step back’. So everybody had to stay put and fight, and anybody who left or deserted would have been shot. So I don’t think they had much of a choice but it is great reading and actually when you look at the scale of destruction and death it puts a lot of things in perspective at the moment.”
Ryan is at home with his parents, Clare and Mark, in Blackrock, as are his sister, Kate, his twin brother Mark and his younger brother David. Aside from the familial company, this too has its benefits.
“We’ve all got on fairly well in the lockdown,” he reveals with a wry smile. “Everything is run pretty smoothly. I bought some equipment from McSport for the back yard - a squat rack, and bar bells and dumbbells - and I’ve been training with them, which has been brilliant. We’ve been running a bit in UCD as well. It’s been good.”
Although Blackrock College was closer to home, Ryan came through the St Michael’s rugby production line after being sent there by his dad, Mark, a former flanker with Lansdowne and Leinster, and the one-time managing director of Accenture.
“Dad went to Mary’s, Michael’s and Roscrea mainly. I don’t know why he was moved around so much. I have my suspicions about his behaviour,” says Ryan with typical dryness.
On Ryan’s maternal side, his mum comes from a little Gaeltacht village called Clonbur in Galway, and where the family have a holiday home.
“It’s a genuinely beautiful part of the world. It sits right in the middle of Lough Corrib and Lough Mask. Actually a lot of fishers and tourists come from around the globe. I love going down there and my family will be there once the restrictions are over.”
His uncle Brendan has a pub there, Lynch’s. “It’s the best pint of Guinness you’d taste in the country. It’s class,” adds Ryan, now salivating as well as smiling at this naked plug for his uncle’s pub.
“Even my mates are constantly harping on to me about heading down there and my old man as well, he’s drunk a few pints of Guinness in his day. Everybody goes on about the Guinness in that pub. There’s something about it.”
Ryan’s first Irish jersey, from his try-scoring debut off the bench against the USA, is framed and adorns the wall.
“It’s cool, and actually there’s a real interest in rugby now in the village. It’s real GAA country but there’s real interest now in the sport and when the international games are on, even the Leinster games, the pub gets very busy.”
Ryan and his twin brother played Gaelic football for Clonbur from the age of nine onwards.
“After I won my first cap the club secretary, John Moran, presented me with a Clonbur jersey in the pub and said a few words. I still have that jersey.”
“I was completely out of my depth at that stage. My lungs were burning. My twin brother was much more suited to it. I was too heavy at that stage. A lot of Gaelic footballers are very slight and mobile, whereas I didn’t have that anymore.”
Ryan reckons he’s bulked up a little more while in lockdown.
“I’m about 113 (kg) and that’s where I see my optimum weight. Usually I’m about 112 so this period has allowed me to put on a small bit of size,” says Ryan.
The break has also allowed him to take stock of the whirlwind start to his career.
“Probably the first year I didn’t appreciate the scale of what we’d achieved,” he admits, listing off the array of achievements. “It’s almost like the further I look back on that the more I realise that it was a pretty big deal. But when you’re playing and you’re kind of new to the scene I suppose you think this is how it’s going to be like all the time, do you know what I mean?”
The last year gave him “a certain perspective”, and he talks about the constant push for Leinster and Ireland to have more unpredictability in their attack.
“We’re working on having those really smart plays that we can launch off that hopefully can cause defences some issues; but also in our unstructured play, being as good and as strong in that area as we can, because that’s obviously a huge part of the game. So, having that unpredictability and variety in our attack, we can cause teams issues.”
“It’s something that’s not going to happen overnight but I think when we get that right, which could take a year, or two, or three years, we could be a really hard team to beat.”
Still only 23, Ryan himself will always strive for self-improvement, with his set-piece game a primary and constant work-on.
“Rob McBride has come in with Leinster and John Fogarty with Ireland, so I work quite a bit with them, in terms of my profile in the scrum, my shape, even building that mindset to scrum.”
I am very lucky. I love what I do and I can’t wait to get back now at this stage
Ryan also enjoys line-out calling and learning from senior teammates and coaches, “to understand opposition defences, where the space is, to get a feel for the game and how everything is going.”
As is only natural after completing two full seasons in both squads, he’s also becoming more vocal both within Leinster and Ireland, something he credits Stuart Lancaster and Farrell.
“I suppose when we’re not afraid to have a point of view and speak up, that’s ultimately how you build trust and how you build relationships and how you grow as a group, which you mightn’t otherwise do.”
Along with Cian Healy, Ryan is also a good man for a few tunes, be it the team bus, after games or end of season parties.
“Myself and Church would take the reins with the music. It’s actually a tough balancing act, there’s a lot of different tastes. Some guys love Christy Moore, other guys love Purple Disco Machine, so there’s a bit of a battle between some of the younger and the older heads, and picking out what tunes to be playing. But yea, I do a bit of that, on the bus and after games.”
Helpfully, he has quite a range of tastes himself, be it Moore, U2, Purple Disco Machine (a Dresden DJ), the Coronas and so on.
“We actually had Danny (O’Reilly) from ‘The Coronas’ come in and play us a few tunes a night after the Wales game and he was very, very good. Obviously Bono came in as well.”
Despite being an ambassador for Lexus, only recently has he acquired his driving licence. Previously, Max Deegan had been driving him to training.
“When I came back from the World Cup I got my full licence, and as you can imagine I got a lot of slagging when I went straight into the Lexus. Scott Fardy and Sean Cronin were particularly unhappy about it. I’m not even sure that Scott Fardy drives to be honest. He seems to cycle everywhere, and he plays a lot of golf, so I’m not sure how much training he does.”
Ryan was among those who initially opted for the Fardyesque shaved head in lockdown, if not emulating Rob Kearney’s Fardyesque beard. “My brother Mark did it, actually both Mark and David had a bit of a hack at it.”
His hair having re-grown and his essays done for the moment, his desire for a return will sharpen.
“People are desperate for some live sport. I’d even watch football now if it was on,” says Ryan. “In fairness, I watch football when Ireland are playing. I wouldn’t watch the Premier League except for some of the bigger games.”
As much as anything else during this enforced ‘time-out’, it’s reinforced Ryan’s belief that he couldn’t have a better job in the world.
“It definitely gives you time to reflect and put some perspective on it. I was actually some of the Australia tour a couple of nights ago. Sky had a bit of a highlights package on it, and even watching that it just resonated with me: ‘Jeeze, I love what I do. I am very lucky to do what I do.’
“Looking at the third test in Sydney it kind of brought back a couple of memories. I remember what an unbelievable occasion it was in terms of the Irish at that venue. It was amazing to see so many Irish fans. Such a brilliant test series and such a brilliant game to win. And that’s only one of a handful of big games and occasions.
“So watching that, and the last few weeks, has resonated with me that I am very lucky. I love what I do and I can’t wait to get back now at this stage.”