Single-minded Ryan aiming to help create more history
Leinster lock looking to complete a dream season with Pro14 final success against Scarlets
Leinster’s James Ryan is tackled by Rob Evans of the Scarlets during the Champions Cup semi-final at the Aviva Stadium in April. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
It’s said that sport and politics don’t mix when, patently, that is not the case. In any event, it’s scarcely true of James Ryan. Not only was Ryan born to play rugby, but he also boasts a proud political lineage.
Ryan’s great grandfather, also James Ryan, was a founding member of the Irish Volunteers, sat in the first Dáil for Sinn Féin and was subsequently a founding member of Fianna Fáil, with whom he was a long-serving government minister.
Born in Wexford, and also a doctor and farmer, he served as the chief medical officer at the GPO in the Easter Rising, at the age of 24. Ryan was deported to Stafford jail, then sent to Frongoch internment camp until his release in August 1916, whereupon he returned to college to complete his medical studies and set up a practice in Wexford while becoming commandant of the Wexford battalion of the Irish Volunteers. He was elected in South Wexford for Sinn Féin in 1918 at the age of 26 and in January 1919 sat in the first Dáil.
Opposed to the Treaty, he was interned on Spike Island before losing his seat in the 1922 Election, and provided medical aid to the republican garrison during the bombing of the Four Courts, leading to another period of internment in Mountjoy and then the Curragh. While on a 36-day hunger strike, he was elected Sinn Féin TD for Wexford in 1923, and thereafter held his seat until retirement in 1965.
The toll of his hunger strike was such that he gave up his medical practice, becoming a farmer in Delgany, and in 1926 he joined Eamonn de Valera in founding Fianna Fáil, with whom he served as minister for agriculture, for health and social welfare, and for finance in various governments in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
As minister for Health he oversaw the passage of a Health Act despite criticism from the medical profession and the catholic bishops. When health minister again in the 1951-54 Fianna Fáil government after the inter-party government collapsed over the mother and child scheme, he succeeded in passing another Health Act which considerably expanded the scope of subsidised medical care, albeit with concessions to the bishops such as the retention of a means test, which Ryan had been opposed to.
His son, Eoin Ryan, was a Fianna Fáil senator, and a grandson by the same name served as a Fianna Fáil TD and MEP.
Not your average rugby player’s backstory, and it’s no wonder Ryan, the rugby player, is also studying history and politics in UCD.
“I love Irish revolutionary history, so I love learning about the Easter Rising and the Troubles.”
He confesses to “a mildish interest” in current politics, and jokes cheerily: “maybe more than the guys in the changing room because half of them are idiots.”
Ryan did his Leaving Cert project on his great grandfather.
“There’s a photo of him with the other members of the first Dáil in my house, I think it’s in all my relations’ houses, and some of the medals he got during the war are in my uncle’s house. He’s certainly someone that we’re all aware of and proud of.”
Their history is also typical of many Irish families during the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War.
“I think the Ryan family was divided right down the middle in terms of pro- and anti-Treaty, so it kind of tore the family apart; split brothers and sisters, I suppose like every other family during the time. I don’t know how active he was during the War of Independence, but during the Rising he was certainly quite active.”
In his studies, Ryan discovered that “since he was one of the younger men in the GPO and given the fact that he was a doctor as well, they thought that if the British guards stormed the building they might spare him. So, they were kind of telling him the story why the Rising took place and who was a part of it so that if they were all killed and he survived he’d be able to tell that story. I always found that fascinating.”
Time management is now one of Ryan’s biggest tasks, in balancing his studies with a burgeoning rugby career.
“For the first couple of years I could have done it better, it’s taken me a couple of years to get better at being able to go home and do a bit of study.”
As well as being extremely focused and driven, teammates describe Ryan as being ‘incredibly rugby smart’, akin to a sponge in soaking up information from coaches, who speaks when asked but otherwise goes about his business quietly, is very popular off the pitch and, like many of the new breed, very level-headed.
Like all 21-year-olds, he will warm to his public role, and in an audience with the Irish media this week he came across as an intelligent young man who would have plenty to say if he was of a mind to, and treats each question on its merits. So it is that during the Six Nations he batted away comparisons with Paul O’Connell almost angrily, and is equally dismissive of any notion that he harbours ambitions to captain Ireland one day.
“It’s not something that I’m thinking about right now,” he says dryly.
Yet he almost certainly will, as he’s done with pretty much every underage team he played for, be it a St Michael’s Junior Cup-winning team and Senior Cup beaten finalists, Leinster Schools, Irish Schools, Leinster Under-19s and Irish Under-20s.
Ask Ryan when he recalls first wanting to be a professional rugby player and he says, matter-of-factly: “Long way back. Five or six.”
This was when he began playing mini rugby in Lansdowne, where his father Mark – a former Managing Director for Accenture in Ireland – was a tough number eight, and also played for Leinster.
“I may have moved on in terms of what he experienced but he’s still somebody that I’d definitely turn to for advice, not just rugby but in everything. My uncle [Aidan] is another one that I kind of looked up to, and Andy Skehan, who was my schools coach and is a good mate of mine. He’s been a mentor for me growing up.”
From age 12, Ryan’s unquenchable drive, appetite for training and exceptional athleticism began to really flourish at St Michael’s. He attributes the school’s production line to “pure luck” and “the environment”, with its morning gym sessions, analysis at lunchtime and pitch sessions after school, which also eased the transition to the Leinster sub-academy and full academy.
Analysis at lunchtime?
Coming across like a wise old pro, Ryan revealed: “It was never something I looked on as a chore. It was something you get so much value out of. You know, how do you improve yourself if you’re not looking at your mistakes? It is something that is highlighted in St Michael’s and other big rugby schools from a young age. It is definitely a cornerstone of preparation, reviewing or previewing games.”
He played alongside his twin brother Mark, who suffered two cruciate knee ligament injuries at 14 and 18, and also broke his collar bone twice in between as well as his wrist.
“The last time I played with him, and it was actually pretty cool, was in fifth year, that summer on a rugby trip to Italy.Then he unfortunately got injured again. But we’ve a nice photo after the game where we were linked with our Michael’s jerseys on. That’s the nice image I have of that day.”
Their younger brother David, a centre, has followed in Ryan’s trail by captaining St Michael’s and has broken into the Irish Under-19 side. Give him advice?
“If he comes looking for it I do. I kind of let him find his own way. He’s got a steady head on him,” said Ryan. It must run in the family.
“I wouldn’t know a lot about what goes on in the centre. In terms of preparation or nutrition, if ever he’s looking for it, I give him my limited knowledge on that.”
Ryan captained an Irish Under-20s side also featuring Jordan Larmour, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Porter, to the World Cup final in 2016 when beating New Zealand en route. It was during his ensuing year in the academy that a former school teammate, Max Deegan, came up with the nickname Big Cheese from a character in the 2016 comedy film Why Him?, and Cheese has, so to speak, stuck ever since.
Ryan missed most of that season after tearing a hamstring off the bone but no sooner was he fit than Joe Schmidt asked him to play for a Munster development team against the Irish Under-20s as a precursor to going on last summer’s tour to the USA and Japan.
This meant Paul O’Connell was his forwards coach, if only for a day.
“We were just chatting through lineouts and stuff. I just thought he was class.” Asked if he liked playing for Munster, Ryan smiled. “Do you know what, I’d play for anyone if it means getting on an Irish squad.”
A replacement in the opening win over the USA, Keith Earls laid on a try for him, with his “second touch” he reminded us, for fear the notion of him scoring with his first touch in Test rugby gathers legs. This perhaps demonstrates how he dislikes the hype around him.
“It was just an amazing day,” Ryan recalls of that 55-18 win in New Jersey last June. “Obviously it was a dream come true, for any rugby player. To put on the green jersey was, I know it’s clichéd and stuff, but it was unbelievable. My first cap. The whole experience. The match itself. The second touch. Everything afterwards; getting to see my Dad there, my brother, all my mates. It was kind of surreal.”
His first Ireland jersey is hanging in his uncle’s pub, Brendan Lynch’s, in Clonbur in Galway, where he returned with the extended family after the Grand Slam, and he says winning his first two caps “gave me that bit of experience and that taste of rugby at the elite end”.
Even so, going into this season, Ryan admits: “I wanted to cement myself in the Leinster team and take it from there. I didn’t expect it to work out like it has but I would be similar to Jordan. We’re in a great spot. We’ve won a Six Nations and a European Cup and we’re heading into the last weekend of the season with the opportunity to create history as the first Leinster side to do the double. That’s an unbelievable position to be in.”
He maintains that “I’m still trying to find my feet at this level,” and reckons his biggest area of improvement is his set-piece through working with Leo Cullen, Devin Toner, Scott Fardy and Simon Easterby.
He last tasted defeat in a British & Irish Cup game when Leinster were beaten 29-21 on October 23rd, 2016, at Donnybrook, rupturing his hamstring in an AIL game for UCD against St Mary’s soon after.
Ryan has played another six Tests for Ireland and 14 games for Leinster this season, and so has been on the winning side in all of his 22 pro games. He describes it as “a jammy run” and says he has not forgotten what it is like to lose.
“I’ve lost a lot. I lost a Senior Cup in my final year in St Michael’s, so I know exactly what losing feels like.”
Rugby is, he says, “so turn-the-page orientated” that he’s scarcely had a moment for reflection this season, and this week has been no different.
“A Leinster team has never done a double, so that’s such a big opportunity, isn’t it? Like, how often does that come around? Then, another driving factor is guys like Straussy, Jordi [Murphy] and especially Isa [Nacewa], to send those guys off on a high. There’s plenty of motivation this week.”
Once more into the breach then, for Ryan and his teammates to complete their slice of history.