James Ryan is Ireland’s leader - it’s time to make him captain
The boys of 2016 must be trusted to help the old guard reach semi-final promised land
James Ryan inspired a much improved Ireland performance in Cardiff. Photogrraph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Each and every herculean feat compels others to follow James Ryan. The 23-year-old does not rise alone, although replicating the feats of Andrew Porter and Jacob Stockdale seems almost impossible.
The boys of 2016 are already deeply ingrained in this World Cup odyssey. It would be folly to waste such rare gifts.
The secret to Ireland becoming a sustainably great rugby team has always been a finger tip from reach. The old guard passing into shadow before the young guns rise up. The double blow of losing Dan Leavy then Seán O’Brien brought that home a few months ago. The Ryan rumours were only growing legs when Paul O’Connell’s hamstring cried uncle, much like Brian O’Driscoll and Garry Ringrose were ships in the Williamstown night.
Criss-crossing of generational talent rarely works out, especially at outhalf. Johnny Sexton usurping Ronan O’Gara back fired spectacularly as there can be only one 10 and the Irish coach at the 2011 World Cup couldn’t make up his mind on who that should be until it was too late, and even then, the wrong decision was made.
A perfect moment in history is needed for grey hairs - Rob Kearney, Conor Murray, Sexton - to blend with this new breed.
Cardiff on Saturday made it clearly apparent that the class of 2016 believes their time is now. Ryan led the Ireland Under-20s to a World Cup final three years ago. He has led every team he has ever played on some place better than where he found them.
He is already guiding Ireland forward, literally. See how he instructed Iain Henderson where to move on the Welsh throw or pointing towards the posts for Jack Carty on the stroke of half-time, before Peter O’Mahony could regain his breath, or delivering information to Jack Conan before a scrum or simply encouraging John Ryan.
Most of all, it’s the technical ferocity he brings to each carry and every tackle. Lineout calling may become his formal duty sooner rather than later should Devin Toner be cited out of The Principality and unfortunately suspended.
Rory Best will captain Ireland to the World Cup in Japan but Niall Scannell and Sean Cronin could well occupy the hooker slots come the quarter-finals. O’Mahony, another true leader, has been placed in the direct line of fire at openside. How long will his body hold up considering the lift-shafts he leaps into? Same goes for Sexton, the third pillar of the Irish triumvirate that delivered a Grand Slam in 2018.
Official or not, Ryan is the primary leader now. Born into the role, he will eventually become Ireland captain. Sooner rather than later might do more good than harm.
Others from the class of 2016 have become essential to the cause. It didn’t sit well with close observers when Porter was transformed from a loosehead to tighthead prop two years ago, but Tadhg Furlong needed an understudy. On Saturday Porter entered the fray, for a stunned yet fantastic Dave Kilcoyne, to immediately dismantle the Welsh scrum before torturing Leon Brown into the sin bin, where the tighthead rested with a massive ice back on his neck.
Here was Cian Healy’s heir apparent. Not Furlong’s. They all must gather at the same moment in time. That’s vital if Ireland are to reach a World Cup semi-final.
The brightest light from that Under-20s crop is Stockdale. Ireland have produced prolific wingers down through the ages from Tony O’Reilly to Simon Geoghegan, Denis Hickie to Tommy Bowe but none of them hold a candle to Stockdale in full flow. Look at those crazy numbers: 21 caps, 16 tries. The second finish against Wales was the act of a stone cold killer. His razor sharp reaction, the subtle toe poke, the pace, the smile, the jersey kiss. He’s one in a million.
History offers many lessons. In 2007 - dun dun dun - Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan overlooked Bowe, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald. Two years later the trio were Lions starters against South Africa.
Sometimes something so obvious cannot be seen from inside the bubble. Close your eyes. Can you imagine James Ryan lifting the William Webb Ellis trophy? Can you imagine any other Irish man doing it?
Ryan is already the leader, make him the on field captain.
Porter remains an awesome loosehead prop that must be used whenever Kilcoyne’s spinach wears off. That might seem nonsensical if Healy returns from injury but depowering this 23-year-old’s loosehead scrummager at tighthead seems equally so.
Just keep Stockdale purring. Most of all, let the veterans follow Captain Ryan and these maturing superstars into the dense Japanese forest.