Home Features Darren Cave: At Just 23, James Ryan Has Established Himself As Ireland’s Best Player

Darren Cave: At Just 23, James Ryan Has Established Himself As Ireland’s Best Player

I should put this disclaimer in early; if I had a clue as to how 23-year-old James Ryan has developed into a world-class player so quickly, I would have done it myself at his age.

Back in the summer of 2017, the Ireland squad announced for the summer tour of the USA And Japan included an unfamiliar name. 20-year-old uncapped Leinster lock, James Ryan, was selected despite not yet playing for Leinster’s senior side.

I had never really heard of Ryan, and it was probably due to my interest in the U20s game dwindling as I entered my thirties. But, to be fair, he’d probably never heard of me either.

And likely still hasn’t.

rory best james ryan

He was picked for Japan, and I remember thinking, ‘this is ridiculous, who is this guy?‘. Very quickly, the hype began to build around the former St Michael’s College player. Fast forward two and a half years, and the Champions Cup and Grand Slam-winning Ryan has established himself as one of the top players in European rugby.

I must admit that although it took a while for me to see it, as a lot of the work he does goes unseen, I’ve come to realise that we are dealing with a very unique and special talent. If there was one player in the Ireland squad that you would not want to be missing, in terms of importance to the team, it would be Johnny Sexton, but only just. Next in line would have to be 23-year-old James Ryan.

On Sunday, he was immense. His partnership with Iain Henderson was outstanding, and one of the best in world rugby. Hendy stands out a bit more due to his playing style – the show-go, bursts through the middle – but Ryan delivers the ugly and hugely important carries. Against Scotland, he finished with a 100% tackle rate (14) and 14 carries. It may not sound overly impressive, but do not underestimate the value Ryan’s work ethic brings to this Ireland side.

James Ryan

Of all his attributes, Ryan’s consistency may prove to be his strongest. He delivers in almost every single game.

It would be interesting to review his career thus far and see how many Man of the Match (MOTM) awards he has won for both Leinster and Ireland. It’s not something we should judge him on, as it’s being picked by someone in a studio, but if he’s in the conversation every single game, it’s indicative of just how consistently he is performing at the highest level.

CJ was MOTM against Scotland, but few people would have disagreed had it gone to the Leinster man. His tackling was impeccable, and he played like a true leader.

James Ryan Scotland World Cup

In terms of Ryan’s impact in this World Cup, we saw at the weekend just how important Ireland’s front five are. That’s where games are won. After the thrashing at the hands of England, many wondered if we would ever physically dominate top teams again, but now I’m looking at our front five and thinking, ‘it’s so settled, the players are in form, and the only player pushing to break in is Dave Kilcoyne and unfortunately, he’s competing with one of the best in the business in Cian Healy‘. And that’s an incredibly positive situation to be in.

I’ve never played in the same team as James Ryan, but I do have experience of playing against him, most recently in the Champions Cup Quarter Final at the Aviva last season. As a result, I can’t make a full judgement on what type of character he is in the Leinster ecosystem, but I would not be surprised to see him continue to take on a leadership role for club and country.

James Ryan James Ryan representing Ireland U20s at the 2016 World Championships

I know both Rory Best and Peter O’Mahony incredibly well and am fully confident that the latter will take over the Irish armband once Besty retires at the end of this Rugby World Cup. After that, if James Ryan can continue his current trajectory, I see no reason why he would not be one of the favourites to take over from Pete in years to come. His pedigree as captain speaks for itself;

– St Michael’s College, Junior Cup captain.
– St Michael’s College, Senior Cup captain.
– Leinster Schools captain
– Leinster U19s captain
– Ireland Schools captain
– Ireland U20s captain

James Ryan is a future British and Irish Lion, and most likely a multiple tourist at that. He has all the hallmarks of a true leader, and on current evidence, he may well receive the honour of taking that Lions armband into battle one day too.

James Ryan

Ireland have a huge opportunity to create history at this World Cup, and while the likes of experienced players like Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray may grab the headlines, it is 23-year-old James Ryan that could have the biggest impact on our quest for World Cup glory.

We are dealing with a generational talent.


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About Darren Cave

Darren Cave is a former Ireland and Ulster Rugby player.