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01st Feb 2024

What is it in James Ryan that Andy Farrell does not see, right now?

Patrick McCarry

James Ryan

“What a man to do extras… a young man eager to learn and perform, and impress.”

Peter O’Mahony was on the stump, at Stade Velodrome, for Joe McCarthy, Calvin Nash and Jack Crowley. Given that they are the fresh(er) faces in Ireland’s crack squad, the Leinster lock and the Munster pair were go-to players to ask about. James Ryan was barely mentioned.

Ireland launch their Six Nations campaign in Marseille on Friday [February 2]. Andy Farrell was last, not long after he announced his starting XV, if the recent form of McCarthy has clinched the No.5 jersey. He replied:

“It is not post World Cup, it was during the World Cup as well and before that actually. It’s what we see in training and progression, etcetera, and what the other lads see also. He’s a young fella that’s on a mission, he’s there to take his chance and his opportunity when he can, and he tends to do that most days.”

It is understandable that McCarthy gets a lot of attention. At 6-foot-6, sporting a bold mullet and putting in some big shifts for Leinster, former Ireland prop Mike Ross insisted it was all positive when he described him as ‘a big, ignorant young fella’. Teamed up with Tadhg Beirne to square off with Paul Gabrillagues (6-foot-6) and Paul Willemse (6-foot-7), McCarthy will feature in a tilt that could swing the match either way.

The surprise of the past 48 hours – as McCarthy was tipped to start the day before any team was confirmed – has been the lack of headlines, or debate, surrounding James Ryan being benched. The 27-year-old has played four Champions Cup games for Leinster, since the World Cup, but was up there with Garry Ringrose as the most likely captaincy competition for Peter O’Mahony.

A little over a fortnight after O’Mahony was confirmed as captain, Ryan is not in an Ireland team for the second big match in a row. It has barely raised a murmur. One of the biggest stories in Irish rugby seems to have slipped everyone’s attention


Ireland players, from left, Peter O’Mahony, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Conor Murray and Josh van der Flier. (Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile)

James Ryan and the Portuguese training camp

Going back to the Second Test against New Zealand, in Dunedin, James Ryan has played 37 games [30 starts] and won 36 times. The only game he has lost in an 18-month stretch is last May’s Champions Cup final against La Rochelle. He lasted only 29 minutes in that match, and Leinster had a handsome lead before he left the field.

Talk to his peers and they will tell you what a dedicated, driven professional James Ryan is. He is as selfless as they come and goes through a stack of grunt-work – freeing up ball for his team and being a thorn in the side of each opponent. He has had concussion troubles in past years but, thankfully, has not had any recent, worrying issues in that regard.

He was the bright young second row prospect back in 2016 but an awful hamstring injury effectively wiped out what was supposed to be his breakthrough year for Leinster. By the time he made his full Leinster debut, in September 2017, Ryan already had two Ireland caps (and a try) to his name. He won his first 23 games, for Leinster and Ireland, as a rugby pro.

Anyone that had seen him playing for Ireland U20s, or for St Michael’s College before that, would tell you that he was destined for a stack of Test caps. He arrived on the scene as this country was adjusting to life after Paul O’Connell.

The comparisons with O’Connell were plentiful, but Ryan did his thing and lived up to all the hype. By the end of that first full season with the big lumps, Ryan had won a Grand Slam, a PRO14 title, a European Cup and started all three Tests in a winning tour to Australia.

The first big set-back of Ryan’s career – concussions aside – came in 2021 when he was not selected for the British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa. Warren Gatland wanted scrappers and menacing units to bring on tour. Ryan was left behind, playing two summer Tests. He had captained Ireland for the first time, against England, in November 2020. That looked like his destiny with Ireland – the first name on the team-sheet for the next six or seven years, and the man leading them out.

Ryan is set to earn his 60th Test cap on Friday, but he has now been put in reserve for massive matches against Scotland and France. At the World Cup, a wrist injury impinged on him and Iain Henderson started ahead of them when the Scots were dismissed. He then missed the quarter final as that injury did not heal.

We are far, far from crisis mode with James Ryan. The Six Nations often throws up plenty of twists and turns. It is odd, all the same, to see him miss out on a starting XV and no-one really raising a stink. It just makes me wonder, though – What is it in James Ryan that Andy Farrell does NOT see, right now?

The Irish training sessions under Farrell are real proving grounds. He has taken that trait from Joe Schmidt and ramped it up again. Farrell told us:

“The best thing you can do for the squad, as a coach, is stay open-minded. If you are fixed on anything, then people tend to get down-hearted or too comfortable, for that matter. When you come into international camp, the pressure they put on each other is the main thing because, ultimately, what you are trying to do as a professional is get the respect of your peers.”

In those sessions, over at The Campus in Quinta da Lago, Portugal, Farrell has seen something in McCarthy that he favours over Ryan.

Ryan must now do his job as a replacement, much as Jack Conan or Conor Murray has become acquainted with, and hope to do enough to get back into full favour with Andy Farrell, and his coaching team.

With any luck, this will be another test to steel him further, for the years ahead.

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