When assistant All Black coach Wayne Smith recently bemoaned the lack of lifeskills in young players, he echoed a lament which has grown louder since the start of professional rugby.

Smith was worried about the consequences of the nation's top young talent being sent to rugby academies and having a narrow range of interests.

There was a danger he and other coaches would inherit players who had not learned much about life and could not adapt or change tactics out on the field.

Smith might also have pointed to young Highlanders lock James Ryan as someone who had benefited from taking a different approach to get to the top.

The 22-year-old red-haired lock has been an integral part of his side's resurgence in what is his debut Super 12 season.

He has impressed on the back of just nine provincial matches and New Zealand under-21 selection last year.

With injuries, suspensions and possible departures cutting into the All Black locking resources, there have been some calls for the national selectors to consider using Ryan against the Lions.

Those are big raps, but he has made a significant impact.

Depending on the Highlanders' progress and the availability of others, Ryan could be asked to play in the All Black trial or for the NZ Juniors (formerly NZA).

Like any sharp, rising talent though, he is not thinking that far ahead. His focus is on tomorrow's match at Carisbrook against the Waratahs. But he will recall one of his best rugby moments, in his final year at Christ's College when they beat traditional rival Christchurch Boys High.

"It took me six times to beat them but when we did it was a great feeling," Ryan recalled.

"It is one of my favourite memories and I also scored a try to make the result out of their reach."

Ryan spent three years in the 1st XV and there were noises around Christchurch about a promising lock coming on to the club scene.

But Ryan opted to go south, for the lifestyle in Dunedin and a chance to study law and economics. The Otago Rugby Union had also been in contact, but that did not swing the deal.

"I thought it would be a good change to get out of Christchurch and I had heard Dunedin was a great place to live.

"It has been the best place to live and I have made some mates for life, whereas the guys I know in Christchurch still have the same friends from school.

"Down here in Dunedin I have experienced new people and new cultures. I first went to a co-ed hall of residence with about 150 new people after being at a single-sex private school."

You can almost hear Smith applauding.

Certainly Highlanders coach Greg Cooper is delighted with Ryan's contribution. He and Varsity clubmate Tom Donnelly have been going gang-busters for much of this season.

Donnelly missed much of last season after shoulder surgery but his combination with Ryan has Cooper recalling another solid southern locking combination of Gordon MacPherson and Richard Knight.

In the opening game of the Super 12, Ryan had battled against his Blues opposite, Ali Williams, and the visitors' organisation.

"But James didn't get his head down, he is a fighter and knew he just had to work harder," Cooper said. "And he likes accepting a challenge. His attributes are that he is a physical player and a good team man. He is also very balanced, no matter what happens he does not change."

Ryan reckons he will knock out his double degree in about another 18 months in a project which has given him plenty of mental stimulation.

He moved from the hall of residence to a grubby student flat but has abandoned that phase for life in a much nicer abode. When his rugby allows he has also completed some legal work experience.

Down at the Otago or Highlanders sessions, Ryan could not help but be impressed by his captain, Anton Oliver.

"He has been bloody good when I go to him, he has been informally guiding me," Ryan said. "It gives me great confidence to play alongside him, he wants me to make the right decisions and he gives me the choice when I call the lineouts."

Ryan confirmed he had been nervous in the opening loss to the Blues. But he still felt the losing margin (30-14) was not a fair reflection of the contest.

Since then the Highlanders had helped their own fortunes, with their defence being a key ingredient.

James Ryan

* 114 kg
* 2 metres tall
* 22 years old
* 9 games for Otago