Wednesday 16 October 2019

Brendan Fanning: Starting to make a mark

Donnacha Ryan's positive attitude to his career has been rewarded at last, says Brendan Fanning

Donnacha Ryan
Donnacha Ryan
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The day Donnacha Ryan got home from the World Cup, a wet Tuesday in October, he was driving past Nenagh Rugby Club when he got an urge to go and give a hand to the under 18s who were out on the field. Still high from the whole experience in New Zealand, if not the way it finished, he wanted to get the message across before it went cold.

"I explained to them that I'd never thought of playing in a World Cup in my life," he says. "And we're out here in the driving rain and this is where it starts. It was the guys around me that got me into this position. And you can do it as well. There is so much potential out there. I really think that if someone has the attitude for it, like, you can achieve an awful lot."

It hadn't felt that way five weeks previously. Ireland opened their campaign on a horrible night in New Plymouth, against USA. Chasing the bonus point late in the contest, they opted to save time on the clock by not emptying the bench. Well, not entirely anyway. The only man left unused was Ryan, pristine and impatient, worrying about the implications.

After any Test match, by the time the fans are clearing the stadium the unused reserves, or partially used, are put through a fitness session while their team-mates are inside in the showers. In its own way it's a form of public humiliation. Two things made it acute for Ryan: it was just him and the fitness coach; and a bunch of his mates, who were doing the camper van thing around NZ, were there to witness it.

They were half-cut. Worse, rather than tear the backside out of him as the situation demanded, they tried to come across all supportive and serious. He nearly wept.

When the show was complete he dragged himself across to them, handed over most of his gear as a memento, and in return they gave him a can of beer. "You need to lose yourself for a bit," they told him.

He agreed. When Ryan got back to the team hotel he grabbed a bike and cycled back into town to meet up with the lads for a few drinks. En route, a van pulled up beside him, and the window rolled down.

"All right mate, get off the bike."

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"No helmet, get off the bike."

"Are you fucking talking to me?"

"I'm a cop, now get off the fucking bike!"

In those few moments, being admonished for having neither helmet nor light, after the night he had already endured, Donnacha Ryan pondered the meaning of life. The answer he came up with then was a good deal different to the one in his head when the tournament was over. The World Cup was good for him. He started against Russia, and came off the bench against Italy and Wales. Each time he contributed something useful. Coming back to Munster he was better for the experience.

This is Ryan's eighth season in red, having started with the Academy as a 21-year-old. In that time you would say his achievements have been modest, for only now is he a real contender for a starting berth on the big days. The picture changes when you consider he only started the game at 17, oddly enough to further his hurling career. He reckoned that if rugby brought on the physical side of him -- he was big and bony but not that strong -- then he might make the Tipp minors as a centre- or full-forward, where he played with éire óg.

So successful was he at rugby that by the end of the season he had played for Munster and Ireland Youths. Thereafter his hurling involvement was an alternative take on the Ban years, when Gaels caught playing garrison games were considered outcasts. For example, when he was signed by the Munster Academy he would find himself by the side of a hurling pitch when miraculously his father, at the appropriate moment, would fetch his gear from the boot of the car and inveigle him into playing. Mattie Ryan, a legend in the éire óg club, is a hard man to refuse.

The son remembers coming on in dire circumstances against Moneygall one day, and hearing the crowd urge his marker to sew it into him. What could he do only plead with the fella not to have his head opened for fear of getting into trouble with Munster? The deal was that he wouldn't try to look like a superstar. Fair enough.

"The first ball I got -- I'd say I hadn't burned a ball in two years -- and I scored a point. 'I thought you told me . . ? That's the end of it now.' You'd miss it, but I'm always keeping tabs on it. I was trying to say that to Will Chambers about going to hurling matches, that he shouldn't bother with the county games, he should go to Nenagh and Toomevara or something like that, a real tough game. To be fair, they're hurling-mad, hurling-crazy in there."

Breaking with the game was a big deal for Ryan, but when the decision was made it was with a plan attached. Too old for youths rugby in his second year playing the game, he moved in to board in St Munchin's. His mentor in Nenagh, Pat Whelan -- who also launched from the same pad the careers of Barry Everitt and Trevor Hogan -- reckoned it would give him the games he needed. No problem, said his folks, so long as you stick your head in the books often enough to come up with some knowledge. There was sufficient transfer of that to get him to UCC for Commerce and German, which became Commerce and Irish when a year in Germany threatened his rugby progress. Along the way, between Sunday's Well, UCC and Shannon, he sampled real rugby -- the gritty stuff in the AIL.

"I used to think in UCC that if we could get through those games we could get through anything," he says. "Aw man, the pack we had? We were just children. Kids. I remember one week for the senior team we had Jerry Manning playing, and the following week we had 13 of our starting senior team playing in an All-Ireland under 20 semi-final. Those games would really harden you up. Sometimes the standard of the AIL mightn't be up to where it could be with more professionals in it, but it's a good medium for lads to learn. I wouldn't like to get into a political discussion about it but I think lads playing at that level can learn how to win by playing pure, hard-nosed, rugby, and dogging wins out, which is something we've been doing in the Heineken Cup this year."

Putting all that to good use with Munster has been a slow process. Two things went against him: the combo of Donncha O'Callaghan and Paul O'Connell, who had just served their apprenticeship when Ryan was arriving onto a senior contract; and the perception of him as an honest tryer who needed a couple more inches and pounds to be in the killer class.

Size was what drove him to rugby in the first place. He recounts without a trace of bitterness being stripped buck naked one day in Munster to see if he could hit the 100kg mark without any kit on -- and then being told to get his jocks back on when he couldn't. A few years back he went over to have a look at what Northampton had to offer, and as soon as he walked in the door they pointed him to the weighing scales. He says the website stats are a work of fiction (hard to argue, given for example that Timmy Ryan's biog is still there), that at 6' 7" and 113/114kgs he is in fact the biggest second row in the Munster squad. So there!

It drove him mad when he was younger. Now at 28, and finally making his mark, it is a minor issue. A year ago, Ryan started against London Irish in the Heineken Cup, and was dropped the next week against Toulon. In fact, that call had more to do with getting Mick O'Driscoll's lineout presence in the side than Ryan not being up to it.

A few weeks back, he got the nod ahead of Donncha O'Callaghan for the European game against Saints. Would he get dropped the next week, for Scarlets? No. He hung on and did well, despite being stripped of the ball early in the contest with an overlap outside him. He is on the bench today for the rematch but this is not Tony McGahan slapping him back down, rather the coach appreciates that Ryan has enough to put him on a par with, or ahead of, O'Callaghan.

So he will be coming off the bench this afternoon, his first run from that position this season. Last season (18 starts/eight off the bench) was the first, however, with clear daylight between his starting stats and late arrivals. To keep himself sane in the preceding years he expanded his mind. He read Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie and found it put perspective on his life. And he devoured anything he could get his hands on in the line of self-help.

"When people are dropped they start going towards psychologists or that and the way I look at it is: I should read," he says. "Your emotions, your brain are also tools when you're playing rugby. It's not just about doing bicep curls. So right, I should read enough about the psychology of the game and how I should react and what kind of individual I am, because, to be fair, most sports psychologists I might meet for only five minutes and don't know where I've come from or what I have. And they're going to be the crutch that I lean on when things get rough? It's going to happen a lot in life, between selections and injuries."

He used to feel sorry for Manchester United's Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who made a career out of being fashionably late to the party. Then he read an interview where the player said that he was good enough to make the difference, and that's why he would be invited at all.

"Every rugby player can be a manic depressive when you're dropped. I've realised that you can never get too high and never get too low. I thought that was a really good analogy, the way he put it. I try and adopt that when I'm on the bench, so when I'm on the sideline I watch lineouts they've done and we've done, and in the event of me having to call the lineouts, I'd have written stuff down on a piece of paper. I'd find that half therapeutic, to be as calculated and not getting wound up like a supporter. There's no point in running onto the field in a big hullabulloo and there's a lineout and you miss a lift. It's happened to a few players and it lets the team down. You can't be thinking about the individual."

This is what made Donnacha Ryan such a popular and valuable member of the World Cup squad. And it's what is standing to him now that his time is arriving with Munster. You'd imagine the Nenagh under 18s are inspired by his journey. No better man to show them the road ahead.

Munster v Scarlets,

Sky Sports 2, 12.45

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