Ryan sets sights on proving a smash hit at Leinster
IT is just over a year since Dominic Ryan made his first appearance for the Leinster senior team.
That was on December 6 last year, when then coach Michael Cheika brought a team of 'kids' and fringe players to Rodney Parade for a Magners League encounter against the Dragons.
A glance at that team-sheet reveals a combination of players on the way up (Ryan, Fergus McFadden, Eoin O'Malley, Rhys Ruddock, Devin Toner) and those on the way out (Ronnie McCormack, Bernard Jackman, CJ van der Linde, Malcolm O'Kelly, Simon Keogh).
Cheika's mix-and-match side gave a gutsy display, but were defeated on a comfortable 30-14 scoreline. However, even on the back foot (and perhaps for that very reason), the 19-year-old Ryan caught the eye and not just because of the peroxide blond hair.
Since that debut, the former Gonzaga, Ireland Schools and Ireland U-20 star has made 14 senior appearances in the Leinster back row, 11 of them coming this season under Joe Schmidt following injury to Kevin McLaughlin.
When Jamie Heaslip damaged his ankle against Clermont last weekend, Ryan was launched into the biggest game of his fledgling career. He had played 13 minutes of the earlier Heineken Cup win over Racing Metro at the RDS, but last Sunday the challenge was to replace an Irish rugby icon for 40 minutes against the French champions in their Stade Marcel Michelin bear pit.
Factor in a Clermont back-row featuring household names such as Bonnaire, Lauaki, Lapandry and Vermeulen and it was a pretty daunting prospect. Yet Ryan displayed no nerves and, although the blond hair is gone, the youngster gave an eye-catching display of tackling excellence, repeatedly helping to thwart the opposition's best scoring intentions as he has been doing all season.
Ryan is all about the tackling. The recipe involves technique, timing and, most importantly, a large dollop of relish. For the finest exponents, it is a love affair that includes a complete disregard for personal well-being.
Watching Ryan this season brought to mind a player who won his first cap for Ireland before the Leinster man was even born -- Sunday's Well, Munster and Ireland flanker Pat O'Hara, one of the finest tacklers and most courageous men to pull on the green jersey.
Like Ryan, O'Hara could play six or seven and was at his best on the back foot against physically superior sides, which, in the Ireland teams of the late 1980s and early '90s, was just as well. Although he picked up Player and Sportsperson of the Year awards for 1989/90, O'Hara's greatest performance came in 1993 during Ireland's 17-3 victory over England at Lansdowne Road.
Ryan played in a similar vein against Clermont last weekend -- relentless, physical and ruthlessly effective -- but O'Hara was 31 at the time, Ryan is still just 20.
"I just went for it," said Ryan. "I knew it was going to be a tight game, so I wasn't sure if I was going to get on, but I was ready mentally. You have the whole journey over to think about it, get yourself in the mindset of playing a Heineken Cup game in France against such renowned opposition.
"But it doesn't make a difference to me if I'm playing AIL for Lansdowne or Heineken Cup, I still make 100pc commitment to the tackle and, whoever it is, at the end of the day, if you hit them hard enough they'll go down.
"I just tried to fit in, get the game set rather than do something stupid like give away a penalty. I knew it was going to be physical game and tough, so I just went in with the mindset to smash them and I suppose we did alright."
More than that. Considering the opposition, venue and injury-ravaged Leinster squad, a losing bonus point was an excellent achievement. The key now is to back it up in the rematch on Saturday and, with Heaslip touch-and-go, there is every chance that Ryan could start.
"If you're in contention to play you have to put yourself out there, train as hard as you can, give commitment in everything you do," he said.
"At the start of the season I still felt I was one of the younger players, one of the more inexperienced, and that still is there. But I've got a good few games under my belt now and at the back of your mind you feel you can improve at this level and you've played well."
You will not find Ryan's profile listed with the senior Leinster players -- he is still on an Academy contract -- but another big game on Saturday will put him in the shop window and this is a player Leinster and Irish rugby should hold on to.
O'Hara only won 15 caps for his country, a combination of the presence of Philip Matthews and persistent injury. Ryan has the potential to be another O'Hara and the youth to make a lasting impact. Keeping him in Ireland is something that should be tackled immediately.