Soft hands, twinkle toes and 17 stone: James Ryan on the move

In his sixth cap, towering lock belies his age with towering performance against Wales

 James Ryan takes on the Wales defence in the Six Nations game at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Tom Honan

James Ryan takes on the Wales defence in the Six Nations game at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Tom Honan

 

James Ryan – aka ‘The Big Cheese’ – is not Paul O’Connell and never will be but there are glaring similarities.

Perhaps it stems from that heaviest-brute-on-the-pitch mentality as teenagers, but Ryan truly enters the O’Connell-zone with his rare desire to constantly appear at first receiver.

“He’s one of the greats of Irish rugby and to be compared to someone like that is humbling but not appropriate,” the 21-year-old protested after his sixth cap.

The comparison may be inappropriate – considering their contrasting bodies of work – but there is no other point of reference for this rising lock, this past captain of boys, this future leader of men.

Ireland’s attack evolved as Conor Murray matured. O’Connell’s monumental courage used to be to the detriment of continuity as he lacked soft hands and foot work to make space for others. His overwhelming desire to carry ball allowed defences realign and invited error.

O’Connell’s specific duties improved in twilight seasons, under Joe Schmidt’s guidance, but Saturday’s journey through Ryan’s first full 80 minutes for Ireland showed those finger-tip touches and twinkle toes.

The statistics – 11 carries and two tackles – belie an interesting role, the towering decoy, as Murray tended to skip his pass to the second receiver.

Array of skills

As Ryan’s limbs grow accustomed to heavier collisions – if that is possible anymore – those around him are getting used to his vast array of skills. A try was almost conceded in Paris because Murray was not ready for a fabulous flick pass off the ground so, on carrying into Alun Wyn Jones in the third minute, there was no offload but an Irish penalty followed because Rob Evans failed to release him.

Johnny Sexton missed this and a few more chances created by Ryan’s smart, surging contributions in the 16th, 34th and 46th minutes.

Ireland’s James Ryan in action with Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones and Josh Navidi during Saturday’s game. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Ireland’s James Ryan in action with Wales’ Alun Wyn Jones and Josh Navidi during Saturday’s game. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

When the otherwise marvellous Sexton retreated, having missed his third shot at goal, Devin Toner gathered the 22 restart before Ryan carried into three Welsh forwards.

“Tackle,” roared referee Glen Jackson as the choke goes the way of the Dodo.

Ryan’s movement is why Cian Healy and Dan Leavy labelled him a six-foot-eight inch, 17 stone “freak” in dispatches.

Such agility meant Gareth Davies was blessed to get his pass away before the scrumhalf met Ryan’s shoulder. This impacted on Dan Biggar failing to find touch but Ireland’s attack was disorganised, whereas the red line solid, so Murray’s solitary option was a Ryan carry behind the gainline. Always willing, the lock stepped off his left foot to soak Ross Moriarty’s tackle on his terms.

Nothing came of it but when Keith Earls cut Wales open on 32 minutes Peter O’Mahony, the good shepherd, was on his shoulder. The roar went up for a quick release as Ryan carried into three hulking opponents, keeping the ball in one paw as Jones sought to manhandle him, willing him to fling a risky offload from beneath a heap of bodies.

No need. Sexton made it 8-13 seconds later after Leavy made all sorts of yardage down the left wing with Ryan, initially as a decoy to fix defenders, adding two more subtle carries.

Powerful finish

Most of the time he was first over the ruck, as happened before the Dan Leavy try when Earls, again, sprinted into space only for his pass to be a fraction behind Murray who had to dive on the ball. Ryan played scrumhalf. When Murray returned to the base, Ryan was waiting to carry inches shy of the Welsh line. Leavy’s powerful finish made it a two score game with 45 minutes played.

“I think in the second half we kind of got on top of them and we could have finished them off a couple of times,” said Ryan. “There was one incident where we were on their line when Leavy made a carry and I’m kind of braced over the ball and I kind of get dominated pretty much. Well, I don’t kind of get dominated, I do get dominated.”

This came off Sexton’s quick tap on 68 minutes when Justin Tipuric and Bradley Davies – 116 freshly arrived Welsh caps – got underneath and rucked Ryan backwards.

“Then, as a result, Murray is under pressure. We end up spilling the ball and we give them an easy out. I think moments like that, we could have been better at and as a result, could have put them away earlier.”

A flying tackle on Moriarty, dislodging the ball, was another inspirational moment to help Jacob Stockdale, who served under Ryan’s captaincy when Ireland reached Under-20 World Cup final in 2016, flash those try-scoring pearly whites all over this tournament.

“James hasn’t changed an awful lot,” said Stockdale. “I played with him since Ireland under-18s and they made him captain straight away because the guys knew there were really good leadership qualities there. It was the same at under-19s and under-20s. He’s always had that, and the hunger to work hard and get over the gainline. He has evolved his game over the years but in terms of his mentality he hasn’t changed an awful lot.”

What special qualities make a leader? “It is just something that he has. Natural leaders stand out. Rory Best, Pete O’Mahony, Johnny Sexton have it and in the younger realm James Ryan. I don’t know what you call it, that factor.”

The O’Connell comparison is not really appropriate but with Ryan there is no other adequate point of reference.

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