Tuesday 25 April 2017

'We're lucky to be living the dream' - Donnacha Ryan

Donnacha Ryan is back fully-fit after a long period trying to shake off a foot injury. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Donnacha Ryan is back fully-fit after a long period trying to shake off a foot injury. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

"Ah, I'm grand." Such a familiar Irish response, and so Irish in that it says so little yet reveals so much. And the question is often delivered with as much disinterest as the answer.

How are you? Ah, I'm grand.

When we meet Donnacha Ryan, we tell him this by way of a tortured introduction, in order that after 33 years on this earth and nearly half a lifetime immersed in rugby, he will have a little more to say when asked, meaningfully, how are things.

So, Donnacha, how are you? He pauses, deep in thought.

"Ah, sure, I'm grand!" A light chuckle follows, much more meaningful a sound than the spoken, throwaway word. He has listened to the question.

He knows the answer. For he knows himself.

"I'm in good form," he elaborates. "I can't complain. Physically I'm very good, I'm feeling very strong and fit which is great. Training is great. All positive at the moment which is a great complaint to have."

Complain

For there were times when he could have had much to complain about.

A serious, seemingly debilitating foot complaint as he turned 30 forced him to stick his one good leg into the outside world, conscious that he may have to leave the only life he knew for another one utterly unknown.

Perspective would always meet him on the rare occasion when the Nenagh native dared to wallow; for instance, meeting the Paralympian in the gym back in 2014 who didn't have the use of his legs while Ryan fretted about the bothersome bone in his foot.

But he remembers the times when he himself, for a while, couldn't walk; the scar that remains is a constant reminder of his personal battle.

He has, at least, emerged on the other side.

Those of us in Paris a fortnight back were wowed at yet another in a series of remarkable combative displays but Ryan checks our enthusiasm just as he knows he always needs to catch himself.

Which is why he never says unthinkingly, "I'm grand," when asked how he is. Too dangerous to assume, you see.

Ryan featured in Chicago when Ireland made history against the All Blacks but appreciates were it not for Iain Henderson's AC tear, he may not even have made the plane.

In his opinion, he doesn't feel he was playing well enough anyway.

"I'd been carrying a chest infection up until autumn and I wasn't at full capacity, no doubt," he reveals.

"I was very fortunate to make that Chicago game purely because I wasn't playing well enough.

"Iain got an unfortunate knock and it was a complete stroke of luck. I was dropped for the Edinburgh game a few weeks before, had to sit it out anyway because I was sick.

"I struggled through the Zebre game and then it was Leinster and things changed for all of us...

"I didn't think physically I was up to scratch and the level of intensity in training is high-octane stuff.

"All you're looking for is time off but if you take that time off, you won't get picked, that's the reality. I got a couple of days' rest leading into Glasgow but by then everything had changed…"

He still hasn't absorbed just how much it has; few have. But first some context, again related to the long road back to fitness in recent years when so many, even almost himself, had written off his professional future.

You mention Paul O'Connell's book 'The Battle' merely in the context of his mentor's envy at Ryan's outrageous GPS fitness scores as O'Connell was facing his own fitness fight.

"Your body is your business. You can wake up with a chest infection or anything.

"You become addicted to training, it's like a drug, you need to have it every week and I'm lucky to have that at the moment.

"But I missed out on it for a long time there and the reality is that was a sobering period of my life.

"The phone doesn't ring and the reality is that the show keeps going on without you. The world keeps spinning. So when you are in there now, I'm not nervous.

"I know the level of commitment I need from a physical and analytical point of view, and then I have an emotional response to it as well.

Uncontrollable

"You are fighting with yourself to be physically fit, and I know Paulie would be fairly intense, but there are so many uncontrollable things that might happen.

"I don't know, you wouldn't sleep if you started worrying about all the stuff that might happen. It's something I've learned in the last couple of years. You can't really worry about all that."

And so we return to Glasgow in Thomond Park, the culmination of a tragic week and yet the beginning of something else, less profound, of course, but ultimately healing for a community mired in grief.

"Death changes you," he says softly. "It gives you massive perspective. We're very lucky as Munster players, we're living the dream for so many people and it's a job to us.

"But what I have seen recently is just so many people coming together after such an awful event.

"A fella saying 'Jesus, I haven't gone to a game but it was great to catch up with an old friend.'

"Those sobering moments when death does occur, it makes you realise and see that those practical, simply enjoyable things in life don't cost you a lot.

"And from my perspective you just think, well, listen you've only one shot at making the most of things. It just reaffirms what we all should be doing in our lives to be honest."

Nothing is taken for granted any more; not his own, stellar form, nor that of a side who have won 11 of 12 matches and merely need to complete the expected victory today to return Munster to familiar European territory of old, a home quarter-final in spring.

"When you're talking about emotion, that is so intangible and if you are ever going to rely heavily on emotion, your performances will become pretty volatile. What motivates you is different to what motivates me.

"The coaches have all put structures in place which have strong foundations and they were there all along this season. And it's up to each player to bring their ambition to it.

"We're still learning, we're still on edge, we know how quickly things can turn in this game. We've a small enough squad. If we get injuries to two or three key guys, we'd be in trouble, that's the reality.

"To be fair, the last couple of years were frustrating. Everybody wanted to win and perform well and it just wasn't happening with injuries and other things. Maybe trying too hard.

"Things don't go your way and it's a vicious cycle. You lose momentum even though the effort is the same. We've the same players. In our job, a year is probably worth six or seven in a normal job.

"Some of them realise they're not just in here to just fit in to fulfil a position, they have to offer a whole lot more responsibility to perform and there is a lot more at stake.

"We knew it was coming this season, Axel knew it. He told me one day, 'We're on the edge of it here'. It was coming.

"It's so disappointing that he isn't here to experience what is going on at the moment."

Which is why Ryan, for this and many other reasons, appreciates it so deeply.

So when he says, even mockingly, "I'm grand," well, it's probably because he knows he is. Sometimes that is much more than enough.

Irish Independent

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