James Ryan rejuvenated and relishing his return to form

Ireland secondrow hails the impact of Paul O’Connell as he prepares to captain the side

The summer may play rough and fast on his sense of competitive spirit. But for James Ryan missing out on the Lions tour was also a story of unintended consequences.

Concussions ruled him out of Ireland's Six Nations Championship clash with England before the Irish lock was overlooked for the initial 37-man Lions squad.

But having finished the season strongly with Leinster, he would have held out hope of making the trip to South Africa as a late replacement for the injured Alun Wyn Jones.

Ryan then picked up an injury and the summer was set at disappointing but was also a less arduous few months than might have been.


Now the stars have realigned. Coming into the season fresh, beating Japan and New Zealand, a third match in as many weeks with the gift of the captain’s armband and the theme of a returning mojo is hard to resist.

“I don’t think I have ever been complacent,” he says. “But yeah, I think this season has been good to me so far. I do think the break was a good thing for me. Getting a few knocks takes a while to get your confidence back and build up.

“It probably wasn’t the easiest season last season. Look, I think being a player performing at this level you always have doubts. I have doubts when things are going pretty well for me. If you doubt yourself, you trust yourself . . . know what I mean?”

If by that he means self-awareness and using some doubt as an energy giver that adds edge to his game, Ryan impressively doubted against Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock last Saturday.

Some of the tempo and pinpoint aggression of the team and the forwards in particular, he lays at the feet of Paul O’Connell. The O’Connell influence is simple and clear. That he also played in Ryan’s position, and from Munster to the Lions was always in a leadership role, makes his contribution from lock to lock and former captain to current captain more personal and precious.

“Yeah, he’s had a real impact. I just think he’s a fantastic coach,” says Ryan.

“I’ve said before that he’s very like Joe [Schmidt] in a lot of ways, in terms of his attention to detail around the ruck and around the set-piece as well for us forwards.

“He’s had a real influence on the group. He’s pretty obsessed with rugby, is the way I’d put it, which is what you want from a coach. It’s kind of what you need at the top level. He doesn’t miss a thing and he’s very direct, he’s very honest, it’s black or white.

“So you know pretty quickly when you’re not on it or when you’ve made a mistake because he lets guys know.”

Argentina will be a different kind of Test match against a team ranked eight to Ireland’s fourth, up from five after the weekend. Coming off a win against the All Blacks sets the home side clearly as the form team. With a number of players expected to come in there is also going to be opportunity.


It's also important that Andy Farrell keeps them in a winning crouch to back up what they achieved on Saturday. Similar intensity, courage, discipline and accuracy is now an expectation.

There is also the mental battle to win, an agreement among the team that a successful three-match November block and they would swing through the New Year and into the game against Wales in February with good memories.

“Yeah, it’s very important. The big thing for us now is that we can’t come off the back of a good win and then not show up this week,” says Ryan, sounding like he would take it personally if that transpired.

“So I think that was the pleasing thing when we came back in, it feels like everyone’s turned the page pretty quickly and we’re already looking forward to this weekend. It’s very important that we finish this block the way we want to finish it.”

Either way, he knows it is his last game before a well-earned rest. Ryan played in three matches in a row last November but it is not a common occurrence for him and even with Leinster, players are heavily rotated, while in the Six Nations Championship the five matches are not on successive weeks.

“It’s very tough,” he says. “You don’t often get to play three games in a row with Ireland. Obviously during the Six Nations there’s the breaks, so the opportunities are in the November window or a summer tour. It is tough.

“The fact that the game was on Saturday just gone and Argentina is on Sunday helps a little bit. But, yeah, that’s the challenge. But you look at World Cups and the schedules during those tournaments. That’s what it’s like. There’s an element of needing to get used to it as well.”

Thinking like that and why not for Paris 2023.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times