Here, Press Association Sport examines the key clash ahead of Saturday’s Six Nations opener in Dublin.
Saracens 24-year-old Itoje looks every inch the superstar with one glance at his record of 19 wins in 26 Tests for England, but Ryan has rocketed to the top of the game in a stellar 18 months. The 22-year-old ploughed through 23 games for Leinster and Ireland with as many straight victories, before tasting defeat for the first time in last summer’s Test tour of Australia. Ryan still only has two senior losses to his name though, with Leinster losing out 28-27 at Toulouse in the Champions Cup this season.
Two men alike in focus and drive, Itoje and Ryan are at the vanguard of the latest generation of professional players. Both quiet and thoughtful off the field however, there are some differences in the heat of battle. Itoje is central to Saracens’ feather-ruffling, where England’s ruthless club side animatedly celebrate every little win amid fierce contests. Designed to rattle opponents, the ploy often creeps into England’s repertoire too. Ryan by contrast would adopt a more understated demeanour whether in action or not. Cheeky Leinster team-mate Dan Leavy once had many convinced Ryan’s self-anointed nickname was “Big Cheese”. The ruse was quickly blown as Ryan’s personality bore out the fact he would never talk himself up. Ryan’s ice-cold ability to stick to Joe Schmidt’s regimented approach has catapulted him into a central role.
“Probably the one silver lining was that all that malarkey would stop”.
Already central to both causes, England and Ireland look to Itoje and Ryan for set-piece acumen, powerful ball-carrying and leadership to boot. While Itoje is happy to remain conspicuous on the field, especially as a scourge of opponents, Ryan just wants to get the job done – with plenty of grit and aggression, just precious little fuss. Admitting the end of his perfect winning streak lifted a weight, Ryan said: “Probably the one silver lining was that all that malarkey would stop”. Whether they are looking for the limelight or not, expect both men to flex some serious muscle in this clash.