DUBLIN (Reuters) - When Paul O’Connell’s career came to an end at the last World Cup, it seemed improbable that a legend-sized hole could be filled in Ireland’s second row in time for the next tournament.
Yet even then, barely out of school, the buzz around James Ryan was already growing.
Within two years, the 2.03 metre lock had made his Ireland debut before playing at club level with Leinster. A year after that he was a Six Nations Grand Slam and European Champions Cup winner.
He played 24 professional matches before he lost a game and had there been a British and Irish Lions tour in either of the last two years, there is little doubt Ryan would have been in the squad.
Ryan has barely put a foot wrong in his young career and at 23, already appears the complete player, routinely outperforming in tackles, turnovers and metres made than everyone else in the Ireland pack.
“James Ryan is James Ryan really, setting a bar for himself and then jumping higher,” was how coach Joe Schmidt described his latest man-of-the-match display in Saturday’s 19-10 final warm-up win over Wales.
So prolific is he at accumulating silverware, Leinster second row partner Devin Toner dubbed the honour the “James Ryan award for man of the match.”
For a tall man, Ryan’s athleticism stands out and has since his youth.
A YouTube clip of a 2012 match captures a 15-year-old Ryan, noticeably larger than anyone on the pitch, taking the ball in his own half, sidestepping one defender, accelerating past three more then handing off a chasing fullback who never really had a chance to begin with.
Other players acknowledge the part-time history and politics student’s intelligence on the park, while a maturity beyond his year has led to an evidently bigger leadership role in recent weeks, culminating with him now calling the lineouts.
While Peter O’Mahony or Johnny Sexton look set to take over from Rory Best as captain after the World Cup, it is likely that the man who led Ireland to their first world under-20s final three years ago will be national captain come France 2023.
But first Japan where, if every step up Ryan has made to date are anything to go by, he is ready to take his game to another level.
While Ireland’s prospects perhaps weigh more heavily on Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton returning to their imperious international form of 2018, Ryan is primed to be one of the tournament’s standout performers.
Editing by Greg Stutchbury