Ryan puts faith in 'unknown' for final showdown
IT'S a mouthwatering Munster club final that features two of modern hurling's most iconic forwards in Lar Corbett and John Mullane, yet tomorrow's big clash in Pairc Ui Chaoimh could well be decided by a relative unknown.
That's the considered opinion of the buzzing GAA dynamo, who'll be managing Waterford champions De La Salle against Thurles Sarsfields. And anyone who has ever been bowled over by the sporting enthusiasm and passion of Michael Ryan knows you can't discount his opinion.
Ryan is the man who single-handedly put Waterford's ladies footballers on the map by managing them to five All-Ireland titles in the 1990s. He was a Waterford senior hurling selector during Justin McCarthy's reign, and was one of those interviewed for the county senior job this winter before Davy Fitzgerald was re-appointed.
This time last year he managed Mullinahone's hurlers to a South Tipp title and the county quarter-final. For the past two seasons, he has also been part of the Dublin ladies football backroom team as they reached consecutive All-Ireland senior finals.
He actually missed their long-awaited All-Ireland glory two months ago, as it clashed directly with De La Salle's county quarter-final.
Worse still, Ryan actually missed his own three daughters lining out in Croke Park the same day as they were on the Waterford side that lost the ladies intermediate final to Donegal.
Yet, as always with the indefatigable Fourmilewater man, life continued onwards and upwards and helping De La Salle secure a second Munster title in two years is his sole focus and passion right now.
Being ranked as underdogs against the star-studded Tipp champions drew a typical Ryan reaction.
"I've yet to meet a bookmaker who was a good hurler," he quipped this week ahead of the odds quoted on this intriguing clash which pits the likes of Mullane, Kevin Moran and Bryan Phelan against a handful of Tipperary's All-Ireland winning seniors and U-21s.
After enlisting locals Luke Lawlor and Ray Murphy as his selectors, Ryan guided De La Salle to county victory despite losing to Ballygunner by 15 points in the first round.
There is a feeling among some at the Gracedieu club that they never got enough credit for reaching the 2009 All-Ireland club final, which only gives them additional motivation.
"I wouldn't have seen that, but maybe the way that final went (a heavy loss to Portumna) soured things a bit," Ryan said. "They're a big strong team who are very focused, have worked really hard and I've certainly no doubts about them."
And he reckons their extra-time escape against Sarsfields of Cork in the Munster semi-final was exactly what they needed to prepare them for their second provincial final.
"We'd won the Waterford final (a big rematch with Ballygunner) by eight points and our two previous games by 15 and 21 points, so we needed a tough game and we were a bit slow to warm up," he said.
He was certainly grateful for De La Salle's traditional fighting spirit, as demonstrated when fighting back, despite trailing by five points in each half.
It was teenage corner-forward Jake Dillon who nabbed the eventual extra-time winner. Still only 17 and now a Waterford IT student, Ryan has not been afraid to start Dillon or give game time to another of De La Salle's minor stars Eoin Madigan.
This year's management also moved Dean Twomey from a forward role to midfield where he has really blossomed.
They face a Thurles side who, coincidentally, also have county minor stars like Aidan McCormack and Michael O'Brien with rising reputations and they both made a big difference off the bench in their semi-final defeat of Kilmallock.
That seems to bear out Ryan's theory that it may not be the side's respective superstars who will decide this all-or-nothing tussle.
"Look, you always know exactly what you're going to get from Mullane and Lar Corbett on a big day like this," he said stoically. "I'd expect it'll be what the other five forwards on each side can produce that could actually decide it."