Wednesday 28 June 2017

Centurion Ryan hopes for another silver lining

Leinster's Dominic Ryan scores a try during their Pro12 game against Zebre (SPORTSFILE)
Leinster's Dominic Ryan scores a try during their Pro12 game against Zebre (SPORTSFILE)
Dominic Ryan (SPORTSFILE)

Marcus Ó Buachalla

It's the 5th of March, 2008. Park Avenue in Donnybrook the venue. Away from the bright lights of the Senior Cup, Gonzaga College are taking on St Columba's in the replay of the Vinnie Murray Cup semi-final.

Columba's, driven by Ireland U-19s star Ian McKinley, are the favourites but Gonzaga manage to bring them to a replay where they then manage to keep them scoreless and, most importantly, manage to sneak over for the only try of the game. Gonzaga openside flanker Dominic Ryan remembers it well.

"Niall Cullen, our centre, managed to get the only try of the game and in the end it proved to be the difference. We did all our scoring in the first half and kept them out. Ian was a huge threat for them and it wasn't easy keeping him at bay but we managed to do that. It set up a shot at a Cup Final in Donnybrook a week later and it was an opportunity we couldn't let go."

More of that anon.

Flash forward to the 5th March, 2016 and a 25-year-old Ryan is once again in the thick of it but no longer away from the bright lights. He is now very much front and centre, box-office.

The eight years have ensured that the green of Gonzaga has been replaced by the blue of Leinster and on this particular night a 100th senior cap.

Ferocity

"I suppose in the build-up all I was focused on like the rest of the lads was the performance. Looking back that was an Ospreys team that were pushing very hard for the play-off places, they still are, and we knew that we would need to meet that ferocity and that desperation that they would bring to the game.

"It wasn't pretty at times but we got there. Afterwards I was able to appreciate the 100 caps but I suppose first and foremost it was about the team and the win and keeping our momentum going and we managed to do that."

The back-rower made his entrance against the Ospreys in the 71st minute off the bench. His arrival was greeted with a warm reaction from the RDS faithful who appreciate their heroes and their centurions even more.

"Winning it at the RDS was special. I suppose you do think back to Gonzaga days and the journey from there and the lads that I would have played with and even before that growing up. You think of the support of family and friends because without them it's not a possibility. You can't get to training or to trial games or whatever. And even when you make it into Leinster, there are down times too, injuries or times when things aren't going as well. There are never any guarantees so to be able to run out and win a 100th cap at home in the RDS was special."

Never any guarantees. Back to that semi-final replay in March 2008 and the aforementioned McKinley. Three years later an eye injury suffered while training with Leinster forced the talented out-half to retire at the age of 21. Only six games into his Leinster career it was gone. Or so they thought.

The story of McKinley's remarkable return to professional rugby is well told by now and last month Ryan and McKinley would again share a pitch together.

"It was brilliant to catch up with him afterwards and he hasn't lost that step and the pace either. He played well against us, kicked a few points and I think he enjoyed himself out there. It's a remarkable story that he is back playing and a credit to him for his perseverance because it might have been easier to give up on that dream of playing again."

McKinley's twitter feed after the game marks the moment perfectly. Flanked by Jordi Murphy and Dominic Ryan, the tweet underneath the picture reads: Thanks to everyone @ZebreRugby and @LeinsteRugby for today. For me it was a very proud day. #graziemilleatutti

This weekend the focus for the imposing flanker is on the defending Guinness Pro12 champions, Glasgow Warriors. In early December for the original fixture Ryan was named on the bench. The fixture was postponed due to a waterlogged pitch but 'Glasgow Warriors - Take Two' sees him starting in Scotstoun.

"In some ways it is a similar challenge to the Ospreys game in that Glasgow are outside the play-offs but with two games in hand that could change very quickly and suddenly you have another team into the mix for those top four places.

"We saw last year when we went there that you can't afford to give them a head start because they feed off that energy and that momentum. We need to bring our game to them but I think that is within us."

With only six games left in the regular season, the Lansdowne man can see the end in sight and the target is a clear one.

"We want to finish in that top two. We want to give ourselves every chance of competing for a trophy and to do that a home semi-final in the RDS is the target. But the road to that point is difficult. Reigning champions this week, Connacht away from home the week after, then Munster. It's a very tough run-in and nothing will be easy."

Back to 2008 and Ryan and his colleagues achieved their target and managed to finish the year off on a high.

Superb

"It was a quick enough turnaround after the replay. I think only six days so there wasn't much time to recover but it was a superb performance from our lads against Roscrea in the final. They had the likes of Tiernan O'Halloran playing in the centre and were a very good team but we managed to hold out."

Two tries just before half-time knocked the stuffing out of a Roscrea side that had dominated first-half possession but hadn't converted this into any real impact of the scoreboard.

Ryan managed to get over for the first try of the game as his former Leinster team-mate John Cooney bossed things from No 9 to ensure a 19-7 win for the green machine.

"It's funny looking back now on all those links to that school year and the symmetry with where we are all at now. Cooney with Connacht and obviously Tiernan as well. Then Ian with Zebre. It was a special year for us winning the Vinnie Murray but did any of us think or dare to dream that we would be where we are today? I don't know! But it's been a brilliant eight years. It would be nice to finish this year off on a high too."

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