Watching Ronan O’Gara boot Ireland to Grand Slam glory fixed James Ryan’s resolve to chase a Test rugby career.
A 12-year-old Ryan looked on in awe from the Principality Stadium stands as fly-half O’Gara’s last-gasp drop-goal sealed Ireland’s last Six Nations clean sweep, with a tense 17-15 win over Wales in Cardiff in March 2009.
Fast forward nine years and Ryan will put his 100 per cent Test match victory record on the line as Ireland seek just their third-ever NatWest 6 Nations Grand Slam when facing England at Twickenham tomorrow.
Ryan’s ultra-fast maturing process has left even Ireland boss Joe Schmidt calling the 21-year-old “Big Cheese”, and now an eighth-straight Test win would carve the Leinster lock’s name into national folklore.
“I was in the stadium and facing O’Gara as he hit that drop-goal,” said Ryan, of Ireland’s 2009 Grand Slam triumph in Cardiff.
“I was with my family; it was incredible. It was my first time in that stadium, and we travelled over in the morning.
“It was one of my most memorable days as a kid.
“Watching that success definitely played a big role in my decision to try to become a rugby player. Every success, Leinster winning Heineken Cups, Ireland winning the Grand Slam, it all played a part.”
Just last season Leinster sent Ryan on loan for game-time in the Munster A team; in less than 12 months he has made his Test debut, and helped Ireland claim a third Six Nations title in five years.
Ryan has long been earmarked for Test status, only for a string of niggling injuries to dent his progress. But to be trusted to start a Grand Slam decider as a 21-year-old lock only serves to underscore his startling proficiency.
Ryan’s Leinster and Ireland team-mate Dan Leavy recently joked that the lock had created the “Big Cheese” nickname himself.
While Ryan has been quick to dispel those rumours from Ireland’s light-hearted loose-forward, he has admitted the moniker has now stuck - with a little help from head coach Schmidt.
“I’d take everything Dan Leavy says with a pinch of salt,” said Ryan, of the origin of his nickname.
“That was a name given to me by a few of the lads, and once Joe (Schmidt) called me ‘Cheese’, it stuck.
“It’s definitely been a roller coaster year for me. It’s been crazy.
“But I’ve been picked to do a job, I’ve a big responsibility this week, so I won’t be losing track of that, with all that kind of stuff.
“Growing up I used to love Stephen Ferris, the way he played, his dynamism.”
ENGLAND: Watson; May, Joseph, Te’o, Daly; Farrell, Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, Hartley, Sinckler, Itoje, Kruis, Robshaw, Haskell, Simmonds.
Replacements: George, Marler, Cole, Launchbury, Armand, Care, Ford, Brown
Ireland: R Kearney; Earls, Ringrose, Aki, Stockdale; Sexton, Murray; Healy, Best (capt), Furlong, Ryan, Henderson, O’Mahony, Leavy, Stander.
Replacements: Cronin, McGrath, Porter, Toner, J Murphy, Marmion, Carbery, Larmour.