Ryan refuses to buckle as Zebre get ready to enter lions’ den
Ex-Munster prop bullish about chances of ending 11-match losing run at RDS as he chases Test honours on three fronts
LEINSTER'S daunting RDS citadel isn't the place to be travelling to when you're desperately seeking your first win of the season.
This is especially the case when the defending European champions are a week out from renewing hostilities with Clermont Auvergne in Heineken Cup pool-deciding back-to-back fixtures.
Leinster's matches with Clermont in the last two seasons have defined them. They each claimed scalps in the pool fixtures in 2010-11, with Leinster earning the bragging rights in their quarter-final clash last season, winning 19-15 in France.
With so much at stake, it's a fair assumption that Leinster's mood will be uncompromising on Saturday night. That does not augur well for Zebre. As the whipping boys of the Celtic League, their record stands at nine played and nine lost.
Such a run of poor results would have some opting for a 'duvet day' on Saturday. Leinster, despite their shocking performance last weekend, aren't known for their charity. Joe Schmidt will be integrating his returning internationals this weekend. It has the potential to become very ugly for Zebre.
Dave Ryan, Zebre's tighthead this weekend, has never been one to dwell on the negatives.
Take Zebre's loss last weekend. The Italians were very much on top in the first half against Cardiff but the concession of three soft penalties resulted in a seven-point loss.
They had Munster on the ropes in the first half in Thomond Park but imploded in the last 20 minutes. Similarly against Llanelli, they were winning with five minutes to go and yet somehow lost. Astonishingly they outscored Ulster by four tries to two and still lost the game.
"It's the little things that are really hurting us," insisted Ryan this week. "For example, at home against Connacht we turned the ball over 23 times. It was 25 turnovers against Cardiff. If we halved those numbers it'd still not be good enough, but they would have been different games.
"Composure, or our lack of it, and inexperience are catching us more than anything else. We are also not getting any luck. The problem is that when you are stuck in the middle of a
run of losses it's very hard to get out of it. Playing Leinster at home isn't the ideal fixture to be trying to reverse a run of disappointing results, but it is what we make of it."
Ryan's positive attitude is absolutely in keeping with the former Munster player's proactive approach to his professional career. After a positive start to his senior career – he made his debut with Munster in the final game of the 2008-09 season – injuries took their toll, and his last two years in Ireland were spent, more or less, in rehab. And at the end of the 2010-11 season there was nothing on the table from Munster.
Even had there been, the reality was overwhelming – Ryan needed a fresh start.
"The two years before last season I was pretty much a professional trainer," recalled Ryan. "I'd get back from one problem only to develop another. It was never-ending."
When he was deemed surplus to requirements at Munster he didn't let the grass grow under his feet, instead relocating to Lazio to play in the Super 10 – "I needed to get game time, to go where I could play rugby, and Italy was a great option" – and was an ever-present in their team for the season.
Lazio's season was up and down. They reached the final of the Cup but were beaten by Calvisano, who completed a league and cup double for 2011-12. Ryan's performances hadn't gone unnoticed, though.
He has Irish and US passports (his mother is American) and was named in the US Eagles squad for their three Tests in June of this year.
"International rugby would be a huge ambition, so of course I was interested. But the week before I left, Zebre came in with their offer and it's a hugely exciting opportunity, as well as being a little bit of job security," he said.
How Ryan came to Zebre's attention is also a stroke of good fortune that had been missing from his life during his last two injury-ravaged seasons with Munster. He was playing well enough and, for once, was in the right place at the right time.
"During the Six Nations, Italy were based at our (Lazio) training ground and the team and coaches took in one of our games.
"Vincenzo Troiani and Alessandro Troncon are two assistant coaches with Zebre and they were with Italy during the Six Nations, liked what they saw and came in with the offer."
There were also offers from a couple of Championship sides in England, but the lure of Pro12 competition and Heineken Cup involvement was too big a draw. He has been in and out of the starting line-up this season but is pleased with the progress he has made.
Ryan is also seen as a "project player". At the end of his two-year contract with Zebre he will qualify for the Italian national team, giving him a third chance of gaining international recognition. "That's not something I'm thinking about," Ryan said.
When you're just a few days out from packing down against Leinster's international loosehead props – either Cian Healy or Heinke van der Merwe – the need to be singular in your focus is paramount.
"They have quality front-row options and we'll be under no illusions about how difficult Saturday's game is going to be. Hopefully, though, this is the sort of challenge that will bring the best out in us. We have been doing well enough and maybe with a touch of luck our fortunes will change," he said.
"One positive is our defence. We have been holding teams out for long periods, with unforced errors then catching us. If we can erase those stupid mistakes and trust in our defence we should put ourselves in a good position to get a result.
"Of course it won't be easy but we are improving every week and you have to back yourself, no matter the quality of the opposition."