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Rising star Ryan was always destined for the top: O'Loughlin

By Cian Tracey

Six months before James Ryan led St Michael's College to their first Junior Cup in 10 years, there was talk that the then 15-year-old was already good enough to play for the senior team.

The likes of Dan Leavy, Ross Byrne, Ross Molony and Rory O'Loughlin were part of the Michael's side that completed an historic double for the Dublin school in 2012, but even back then they couldn't believe how highly Ryan was regarded.

Playing as a No.8, Ryan used every bit of his frame to his advantage. His time spent playing in the back-row continues to stand to him now, as was evident in Paris on Saturday in the manner in which he carried powerfully and tackled tirelessly.

"There was always an expectation that he would go on to a level that no-one really in the school had gotten to before," O'Loughlin recalled. "There was even talk, when I was in sixth year, that he would have been good enough to play for my team.

"It was just the size of him. He was a tall, skinny guy with the frame to fill out.

"That's always the risk when you hype up a player at a young age that they might not grow, or might not get to the size.

"But he always had the attributes to go on and make it. There have been speed bumps along the way with the (hamstring) injury and stuff. But he just bounced back. Now he is in a position where he is fulfilling his potential."

Leinster have known for some time that Ryan was destined for the top, but they have managed him carefully, as well as the expectations.

Even still, there was an element of surprise when the 21-year-old was picked ahead of Devin Toner for such a crucial Six Nations clash.

Leinster's scrum coach John Fogarty maintained: "We were a little bit surprised because we know the value of territory when you go to France - Dev has been a huge source of that.

"On the other side, not overly surprised because Joe likes to play lots and lots of rucks, and lots and lots of contacts. This kid (Ryan) is designed for that."

The expectation is that he could win 100 caps for his country, but he is very new to professional rugby and is still learning how to manage his body.

He has captained teams throughout his fledging career, including the Ireland U-20s, who he led to a first Junior World Cup final. A man of few words, Ryan is emerging from his shell and O'Loughlin believes his team-mate is becoming more of a leader.

"He is funny to have around," the Leinster back said. "When he came in, he would have kept to himself. This year he has grown and taken on a role, not a joker, but he's good at getting the best out of people. You can see he has a good way with people and he's good at getting his message across. He has the confidence to be a captain."

Ryan's blossoming partnership with Iain Henderson was one of the biggest positives to come out of Ireland's win over France.

It was also interesting to note that Ryan played as tighthead lock last Saturday and not the more experienced Henderson, but Fogarty believes that he was born for the heavy lifting.

"He's really capable," he added. "He hasn't shown himself to be fazed when asked to play these big games."

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