In the best game of his Ireland career, James Ryan made the bravest call
"That was Cheese."
For the local media present, at Sky Stadium in Wellington, they may have needed a minute before realising Johnny Sexton was talking about James Ryan.
The Ireland captain was referring to a moment in the game, 65 minutes in, when his side were awarded a penalty by Wayne Barnes that could put them 28-22 clear.
Ireland had started the second half 22-3 ahead, but the All Blacks had come roaring back with tries from Ardie Savea, Will Jordan and Akira Ioane. Andrew Porter had returned from the sin-bin, though, and Ireland were starting to put some pressure on again.
Barnes awarded Ireland a penalty that Sexton could have easily kicked over, but his pack leader wanted to go for the kill. Sexton would later explain:
"That was Cheese. James Ryan. He was on it tonight. A couple of times we talked about going for three and he just said, 'No, go for the corner'. For him to show that leadership is a big step for him, which is great."
Ireland did go for the corner and Rob Herring did what he has been doing so well for Ulster, all season. The hooker made his throw, Ryan caught it and fed the ball back to him. Herring then backed himself and beat three Kiwis to the tryline to dot the ball down.
Given the opportunity to land another body blow, James Ryan backed his pack to deliver the knock-out.
— Sky Sports Rugby Union (@SkySportsRugby) July 16, 2022
James Ryan answers the critics
At Eden Park, in the First Test, James Ryan had a quiet night. He struggled to make a meaningful impact on the game and, when he pushed it, he gave away penalties [a silly one in front of the posts springs immediately to mind]. Even when he made a lineout steal, Jamison Gibson-Park inexplicably let the ball bounce back out for an ABs' throw.
He was not the only slow Irish starter in the series - Caelan Doris, Tadhg Beirne and Tadhg Furlong were others - but he came roaring back into the series in Dunedin. That game showed Ryan was back to his best - working, disrupting, doubling up on tackles, making huge clear-outs, showing up for carries and whatever else yer having yourself.
Some may have told themselves that Ryan only prospered because Sam Whitelock had missed out. The big All Blacks lock was back for the Third Test, but Ryan and the immense Tadhg Beirne bossed matters again. Ryan had one lineout steal, messed up another All Blacks throw, claimed three Irish darts and sank 16 of the 17 tackles he attempted.
Despairing after aiming for Peter O'Mahony [for some reason] with restarts in Tests one and two, New Zealand aimed for Ryan at Sky Stadium and found a willing recipient.
2017 to early 2021 had seen James Ryan on a rapidly rising trajectory. Here, after all, was a guy that made his Ireland debut before he had played a senior Leinster game, and scored a try with his first touch. Here was a guy that had an unbeaten 2017/18, all the way until Ireland lost in Brisbane to the Wallabies [on their way to winning the series 2-1].
He was a guy earmarked for the Ireland captaincy from years back, and who was often the stand-out player in green during that first, tough 13 months under Andy Farrell.
Concussion concerns saw him sit out stretches, and miss out on a Lions Tour. He had a number of excellent performances, this season, but more concussion worries and Leinster's end-of-season struggles saw some doubters get bolder, and louder.
He may have taken a while to get back to the levels he had reached in his first few seasons at the top. He reached those levels in Dunedin. In Wellington, as Ireland clinched a famous series win, he surpassed them.
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