Tuesday 18 June 2019

Little lost in translation as exile Donnacha Ryan makes the most of new life experience in French capital

Former Ireland lock getting to grips with new language and making impact with Racing 92 after injury lay-off

Donnacha Ryan in action against his former team-mate Conor Murray during the recent Champions Cup clash between Racing 92 and Munster. Photo: Getty Images
Donnacha Ryan in action against his former team-mate Conor Murray during the recent Champions Cup clash between Racing 92 and Munster. Photo: Getty Images
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast" - Ernest Hemingway, 'A Moveable Feast'

Donnacha Ryan spent many evenings in Paris last summer turning a new experience into something familiar.

With his French learner's book in his bag, Ryan would take the 20-minute spin on the train into Notre Dame, stroll to his favourite café near the Seine, go all the way up to the 10th floor and take in the view before him.

Ryan was used to trips to the French capital with Ireland and Munster but he never viewed the city from this angle before. Paris, Notre Dame and a river running through it. What a feast for new eyes.

New club, new city and Ryan rolled with it. He felt the thrill of the Tour de France pass by his rented house and double-dipped on this new experience by catching the train into the city centre to watch the peloton loop around the Arc de Triomphe last summer.

He jumped aboard the French way of living and got himself a scooter (although he drove his car into the city yesterday in order to, as he put it, give his face a break). Ryan also quickly noted the French love of people-watching as they sit outside cafés.

Away from Ireland, and away from sometimes being mistaken for Peter O'Mahony, Ryan smiles at how he must appear to curious Parisians.

"The French people love to stare," Ryan laughs as we talk yesterday. "Especially when they see a big Wayne Rooney lookalike on a ladder type-of-thing, they're like, 'What the hell is this fella'!"

The experience of joining Racing 92 was helped by a familiar face. Ryan used to call over to Ronan O'Gara's home once a week for dinner before O'Gara finished as assistant coach with Racing to move to New Zealand last month.

Dinner at the O'Garas would inevitably double up as a French lesson, with the teachers being O'Gara's young kids and Ryan the student.

As well as the anonymity in the French capital, Ryan believes it's all adding up to him dealing better with the transition when his playing career finishes.

"It's different but I think it's kind of good because its acclimatising to life after rugby. When lads retire all that stuff (attention, etc) goes away and it's onto the next generation which is good.

"I think sometimes it can come as a shock to some guys, maybe they're used to seeing their names in the paper or that kind of attention and, all of a sudden, it's gone. For me anyway, I try in some respects to keep the head down."

The opening act of Ryan's playing time in Paris wasn't all joie de vivre. He was out for 10 weeks from the start of the season after picking up a neck injury while playing against Bayonne which required surgery.

Add that to his basic grasp of French and his desire to impress and Paris didn't always deliver the romantic view.

"I found it very difficult because you're trying to integrate yourself into the team," Ryan says. "I was really keen to prove myself and try and make a very good impression especially with the coaches.

"When you're injured it's very frustrating at the best of times, (there's) the language and you're trying to find out where to go half the time, it can be even more frustrating. But, definitely, out of the comfort zone, that's for sure."

When I visited Racing 92's training base at the end of last summer, Dan Carter was already slagging the two former Munster boys for their chats at training.

That day, last August, O'Gara pointedly said that Ryan wanted to be there with his new club.

While news of his departure from Munster and Ireland caused upset amongst some supporters, it was, ultimately, Ryan's decision to move to Paris and it's something he wants to make the most of especially now that he's back playing after returning from injury before Christmas.

"I'm definitely enjoying it. I'm massively invested in Racing and I'm trying to make a difference as much as possible," Ryan admits.

"I've been with Munster 13 years… (you) get another perspective on things as well - I think it's very important for everybody to do, I suppose."

Ryan was at Lansdowne Road last Saturday to watch Ireland's win over Italy in the Six Nations.

The last of his 47 Ireland caps came in that magnificent win over England last March which started a run of nine consecutive wins for Joe Schmidt's team.

Ask Ryan if it was tough to watch Ireland play last weekend and the response comes without a hint of bitterness and with no sense of loss on missing out on further Ireland caps because of his decision to continue his playing career abroad.

"I'm always a massive Irish supporter. It's great that I know the guys and what they're trying to do on the pitch.

"You're obviously out plugging for them as well," Ryan says before sounding relieved that there is no frustration with the way his Ireland days finished.

"You don't want any bad feelings more than anything, that's the last thing you want because you have to hang onto that for the rest of your… that's your final ending really.

"I've had fantastic experiences with Munster and Ireland. I'll definitely go to as many matches as I can in the future as well because its great watching them play."

Moving to Paris made Ryan appreciate even more what he had with Munster and Ireland.

He mentions the "invisible infrastructure" that exists for players when they see their parents in the stand at Thomond Park alongside the players' wives or partners.

It's not something which happens in Racing because the players are from all over France and all around the world.

"It's very unique you know," Ryan says about Munster before pivoting into what his new club is trying to do. "In France you try and make a big effort to make sure everyone is included."

Racing has recently been getting the full effect of Ryan who seems to have taken up where he left off last season for Munster and Ireland with his impressive form.

It was Ryan who defiantly caught his team-mate Remi Tales' kick-off in the definitive moment of Racing's Champions Cup pool win over Munster last month.

"When you have a player like Donnacha, he's a huge addition to the team and if he wasn't here I don't know if we would have won the game," Yannick Nyanga said following that victory.

Next season Racing will host another player from the Munster stable. Simon Zebo has been over to Paris a few times and Ryan has quickly turned into helper with advice to Zebo about where best to live ahead of his move there this summer.

"I think the lads will love him. He'll love the French style and he'll have no problem at all," Ryan smiles.

We finish our chat with Ryan saying how, despite all the change in his playing career, he's still known as Donnacha Ryan, from Munster and Ireland, even though he no longer wears those jerseys.

"You're representing yourself when you go abroad, representing Ireland and Munster," Ryan says.

Some things, like where you're from, stay with you no matter where you go.

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