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Saturday 19 October 2019

Ryan and Itoje set for next chapter in match of equals

James Ryan (right) celebrates with Ed Byrne after the semi-final win over Toulouse last month
James Ryan (right) celebrates with Ed Byrne after the semi-final win over Toulouse last month

James Ryan is to Leinster and Ireland what Maro Itoje is to Saracens and England.

The 22-year-old Dubliner is all about continuing to challenge the natural pecking order of second rows in Europe, while not compromising his role for club or country.

It is already a debate as to which man is better, with opinion divided along the lines of what you want from a lock.

Itoje, 24, arrived as a tour de force in the game, a superior athletic specimen with a penchant for the sort of big play that can swing a game.

"I remember watching his meteoric rise a few years ago. It was admirable," noted Ryan.

"You can see why. He is such a good player. He is a complete second row in many respects in the fact he is so good over the ball as well.

"He is one of Saracens' go-to players. They look to him for generating energy and momentum."

Itoje came along at a time when the game and the position were changing; the enforcer became a dying breed as the concentration on discipline and the eyes of multi-cameras removed the skulduggery.

The fashion now is for a hybrid lock, almost as good in the back row as the middle one.

Certainly, this is the case for Itoje, who has been known to alternate between the two.

"Gone are the days of second rows just being set-piece players," said Ryan.

"Obviously, you've got to be able to do that, first and foremost.

"Second rows now need to have a variety of skills and you need to be ball players, be comfortable on the ball.

"That is the way it has kind of gone now."

On entering the professional arena, Ryan was smart enough not to copycat the virtues of those ahead of him, not Brodie Retallick, not Eben Etzebeth, not Itoje.

He chose to stick to what works for him, improve his strengths and add layers to his all-round input.

"A lot of it is your own game," he said.

"I mentioned Itoje, how he's very good over the ball. It's probably not something I'm very good at.

"I'm slightly taller than him and my first instinct would be to barge rather than poach.

"There's one example where I would look at something he's very good at, but it doesn't automatically mean I am going to do that."

The interest surrounding this individual match-up will be swallowed up as a sub-plot to the main storyline.

Saracens have been the form selection all season, from round one back in October right through to their demolition jobs on Glasgow in the quarter-final and Munster in the semi-final.

Where do Leinster look for belief that this can be done?

Belief

"What gives us belief? I think when you look around and you see some of the talent we have, that's what gives us belief."

Ryan also alluded to the leadership of Jonathan Sexton and the benefit of last years' experience.

"The fact that we did it last year, we can take plenty of belief from that," he stated.

"I think it has been a steady progression since the quarter-finals and I think we are going to need a season's best performance this weekend.

"Saracens are the in-form team but there is plenty of belief that we can do the job."

Time, talent and temperament will tell all.

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