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Tony Ward: James Ryan has quality but we must be careful

Huge talent: James Ryan would be a major loss if he picked up an injury
Huge talent: James Ryan would be a major loss if he picked up an injury

By Tony Ward

The question to the Six Nations jury: which player can Ireland least afford to lose to injury or suspension?

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The immediate response, and mine on auto up until now, would have been either of the half-backs. Not that we don't have maturing resources in reserve but because Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton are so far ahead.

So I pondered and tried to put myself inside Joe Schmidt's head but it led me down a different, and I believe much more accurate, road entirely. What Paul O'Connell was when he first burst onto the Munster and Ireland scene (try-scoring debut v Wales in 2002) alongside Mick Galwey, James Ryan is now (also a try-scoring debutant in green v USA in 2017). For Galwey back then read Devin Toner for Leinster and Ireland as mentor in chief.

The value of an experienced head alongside cannot be emphasised enough. Talk to Donal Lenihan and ask him the difference Moss Keane made when nursing him through, whether Munster red or Ireland green.

Ryan is already indebted to Toner and to Lion Iain Henderson for their role in his test introduction to date.

My answer to the jury's question went along the lines: "It might sound a little premature given his age and relative lack of experience but, with the injuries to Tadgh Beirne and Iain Henderson, James Ryan is already close to irreplaceable".

Needless to say I stand by that entirely with Ryan the most exciting forward talent to come through the provincial system since... well, since O'Connell. We truly are blessed to have such a near complete second row forward following in the immediate footsteps of arguably our greatest lock ever.

That Ryan is the real deal is already accepted beyond the metropolis and way beyond these shores but there is growing concern and, if there's not, then there ought to be.

In defence of Schmidt and fellow selectors Andy Farrell, Simon Easterby and Greg Feek, the injury dilemma in the second row is turning into a crisis with three first-choice locks all laid low and another (Donnacha Ryan) effectively banned. Amazing how it is one rule for Sexton and another for Ryan.

Either way the bottom line sees James Ryan, while not calling the lineouts, still the main man in the second row and alongside Rory Best in front and Peter O'Mahony behind as an automatic leader.

He is young, bursting with talent and energy, imbued with the most complete work ethic but there has to be concern that given his tender age of 22, we are flogging him to the limit.

In terms of sporadic rest, the game still favours backs over forwards for clear and obvious reasons. I am not scaremongering but the recent spate of injuries in the second row concerns as much in terms of the extra load on an extremely young pair of shoulders with what appears a legendary career ahead as the temporary loss of the high-profile players.

But we are where we are and I sympathise with Schmidt in his dilemma as his heart must skip a beat every time Ryan goes into contact. I think it indicative too of the demands on Test second rows everywhere that Gregor Townsend also has his problems in that area (although Johnny Gray will be back in situ) while Maro Itoje (just two years older than Ryan) paid a high price for that physicality in Dublin.

But for now everything focuses on Murrayfield and a match we simply have to win.

The lessons from two years ago have been ingrained and along with last Saturday's no show been rehashed all week. There is only one answer to under-performing and that is the next game.

We are fortunate, despite the mounting injuries, that Edinburgh comes within days of Dublin. Talk is cheap, performance is everything and to that end I expect a much more vibrant changing room, albeit on Scotland's patch ahead of today's kick off.

It is a team picked to do a job and the best available in the circumstances. The late withdrawal of Henshaw we could definitely have done without and yet with Chris Farrell comes very real promise.

Despite five changes in personnel from seven days ago, this is an Ireland side possibly even stronger than that which beat the All Blacks in November.

Farrell for Ringrose and Conor Murray for Kieran Marmion are the changes behind the scrum with Quinn Roux for Toner and Jack Conan for CJ Stander the enforced changes up front, while Sean O'Brien comes in as a strategic switch for Josh van der Flier alongside Conan in the back row.

Both Ringrose and Stander would be definite starters, probably Toner too if fit but I think it fair to say that the return of Murray and O'Brien for Marmion and Van der Flier respectively doesn't weaken the team - indeed, we can expect quite the opposite.

Ultan Dillane for Iain Henderson on the bench represents the only change of consequence (as in injury) to the replacement line-up against New Zealand. By any stretch of the imagination this is a powerful Ireland squad that left for Edinburgh on Thursday.

It is one more than capable of making good the loss to England but equally will have had seeds of doubt planted on the back of that less than impressive performance. And given the year that is in it, maybe that is no bad thing.

It's not as Schmidt or his players would have wanted it after one game in which the Grand Slam and Triple Crown disappeared for at least another year but questions are now being asked of this squad which have never been asked before.

The inability to respond to England's opening 40 minutes at the Aviva has to be a concern and so, too, the corresponding game against the Scottish at today's venue two years ago. We would not be so arrogant to describe this as a potential banana skin but it is a Six Nations fixture with danger all over.

There is very real substance to a squad drawn from Champions Cup last eight qualifiers Edinburgh and Glasgow, an exciting squad that is driven by an equally exciting coach who preaches just as he played.

I genuinely believe last week to have been a glitch but the proof will be in the response and please, please let us come away with something more constructive than aerial bombardment from first whistle to last. An Irish win, an Italian rest for Ryan and all will be good once again.

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