Schmidt hints at possible November return for Ryan and says no big 'financial difference' in contract offer
Irish coach says he tried to persuade Munster man to stay on board but insists international door will not be closed to Paris-bound lock, writes David Kelly
Joe Schmidt's oft-stated disinclination to read the newspapers or listen to rugby comment may have been an advisable reaction if the recent furore surrounding Donnacha Ryan's transfer from Munster to Racing 92 is anything to go by.
Even without distrusting one's fretful memory and submitting to Google, the list of names who strongly objected to the IRFU's apparent reluctance to offer Ireland's best Six Nations lock, even at 33, a sufficiently worthy contract to stay here is a lengthy one. Keith Wood. Eddie O'Sullivan. Brent Pope. Stephen Ferris. Tony Ward. James Downey.
Even Simon Zebo got in on the act last weekend, telling us after Ryan's last game on Irish soil that he "couldn't fathom" the decision to allow his team-mate to leave Munster and, as his exclusion from the summer tour may indicate, effectively end his international career.
The IRFU - and Schmidt - have held their counsel on the matter. Until now. Schmidt stressed that the "door was not closed" on Ryan's international career although, aside from Jonathan Sexton's well-flagged Parisian sojourn, the door has always been closed on exiles.
Moreover, Schmidt revealed that, aside from his own attempt to persuade Ryan to remain here, the disparity in financial terms between his previous contract and that which was rejected was not as substantial as perhaps publicly perceived.
The bottom line of this bottom line, it seems from the IRFU's point of view, is that the second-row forward ultimately made this decision on his own terms for sporting and lifestyle reasons, and not due to any bean-counters in HQ. "He was definitely offered a contract," revealed Schmidt. The perception until now was that Ryan's national contract was withdrawn and a substantially reduced provincial deal replaced it.
Pressed as to whether it may have been of sufficient worth to the player compared to the one he previously had, Schmidt elaborated in an attempt to simplify what are often semantics.
What matters is the bottom line being received by the player - not who is paying it.
"I don't think it was far off his old one," said Schmidt. "I don't know the numbers to be honest, but I think people definitely worked hard to keep him. I know the phone calls I made and also the discussions I had. Also, I have huge respect for him and you make your best pitch. But when he explains to you his reasoning… You present your argument, he presents his and you present another argument and in the end I think there's personal reasons and some professional reasons, and some broadening opportunity that has been part of it. I don't think it's a massive financial difference.
"There's always going to be a financial difference but, for me, I'd rather be excited talking about the guys we have got now. As I said, he's done most things in the game, and he has, what I think, a valid reason for doing what he's doing and he made a choice."
A choice that may cost him a World Cup, which is one of the reasons why a hugely promising, if uncapped, lock with no provincial experience, James Ryan, has been selected ahead of him.
"The door is never closed and it's not closed on any other player who is playing externally, but it becomes a very difficult calculation. The other thing with Donnacha is he will potentially be 35 or 36 by the time the World Cup comes about.
"I know age is just a number and it's not the most important number. The number is how many lineouts you win clean or how many rucks you hit well or effective tackles you make.
"But I do think that if we were ever going to have a look at these young guys, we play South Africa, Fiji and Argentina, if we need the kind of grit, strength and experience that Donnacha brings then that would probably be a place that we may involve him again."
Again, Schmidt was persuaded to interpret for a confused public the unwritten IRFU policy of international exclusion for those who spurn their homeland. "I don't know what your numbers would be," when asked were one's chances of exiles playing for Ireland a 50-50 shot.
"You might be more 70-30, 75-25, but I think players are aware of that and I think that players aren't robots either."
There would not have been such a clamour about Ryan's exclusion had second-row been a well-stocked area, as perhaps evidenced by the fact that namesake James is joined by another uncapped player in Kieran Treadwell (ironically an erstwhile Exile who once wanted to play for England!). "It's not a disquiet I was aware of," adds Schmidt, surprisingly. "It is also a fantastic opportunity to get some new guys in. We have a 20-year-old and 21-year-old who will be 23 and 24 by the World Cup.
"Quinn (Roux) is quite young. He came to South Africa last year and impressed us. He left the pitch when we were leading 20-16 in Ellis Park, which is a pretty good achievement. He has a few injuries and niggles. We just felt it was another opportunity for us to have a look at Quinn. "Devin Toner is our lineout king and with Iain Henderson away, who did a fair bit of calling in the England match, it was pertinent to bring Dev as well."
Ireland, who will be captained by Rhys Ruddock, yesterday withdrew Tommy O'Donnell (ankle) and announced Ulster's Sean Reidy as his replacement.
Another slightly less heralded cause celebre is Tadhg Beirne, who left this country with no contract but returned to win a Guinness PRO12 title with Scarlets.
"With respect to Tadhg," said Schmidt. "He's done a super job, and he's certainly not a guy who is forgotten. Not at all."
Meanwhile, Ronan O'Gara - oh, the irony - an overseas-based Irish coach, one who will now welcome Ryan to his Top 14 club, yesterday began his first day as an international coach.
His first of many.