Friday 22 March 2019

'We needed someone with Donnacha's aggression'

Former Munster man Donnacha Ryan meets old rivals Leinster this weekend. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Former Munster man Donnacha Ryan meets old rivals Leinster this weekend. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Many moons ago, one morning when Pat Whelan set off from Nenagh for Cork, and Donnacha Ryan wasn't at the pair's usual meeting spot, he assumed that his rugby days were over, before they had ever really began.

Munster Youths were training in Highfield and Ryan had been called up, but hurling was still his first love.

It's a familiar story of a teenager having to decide between sports and try as he might, Whelan didn't think he had done enough to turn Ryan's head towards rugby.

You can imagine his surprise then when shortly after arriving at his destination, Ryan pulled up in his father's car.

"He had gotten his dad to take him down so I knew at that stage, there was a possibility that we had him," Whelan recalls.

Ryan's owes a lot to Whelan's perseverance, particularly because he only took up rugby at 17, and when he did, he was extremely raw.

Indiscipline was an issue but that was largely due to adjusting to the rules of what was a totally new sport.

After all, here was a guy who only joined Nenagh Ormond in order to 'toughen up' and further his chances of getting on the Tipperary minor team.

Whelan, however, saw Ryan's potential from an early age and it was he who got him involved in the first place.

"It goes back to a time when I had a young Canadian school over and we had to house them, Donnacha's parents housed two of the Canadian kids," Whelan explains.

"Up to that, he was more interested in trying to make the Tipperary minor hurling team than he was in rugby.

"His very first match was against that Canadian school. I refereed that match myself and what amazed me was the engine that he had.

"Everywhere the ball was, Donnacha was. He had huge athletic potential at that stage but not a huge interest in rugby.

"I was involved with the Munster Youths and after that I took him along to a few of the squad training sessions.

"He went on from there, he made the Munster Youth team and the Irish Youth team also and I'd say he hadn't a dozen games of rugby behind him at that stage.

"He was very green so I thought to further his development, schools rugby would be good for him. I put out a few feelers and Munchin's were very keen to get their hands on him."

St Munchin's College were indeed only too glad to secure a player with Ryan's potential for the Senior Cup in 2002, and six months after his first day in the Limerick nursery, he was a Munster champion.

Just like Whelan had found, the coaches in Munchin's immediately saw the potential in a hulking 17-year-old.

"Nenagh deserve a lot of credit for sending him to Munchin's because a lot of country clubs, when they get a good player, they won't let them go into the bigger rugby schools because they know they will lose them," Pat Cross, a coach in Munchin's as well as ex-Munster Youths coach maintains.

"But they are going to lose them anyway, they don't realise they are holding them back.

"There is a big difference between training on a Sunday morning with a club and four or five days a week in school with tough matches."

Cross had watched Ryan flourish in school, so when he approached the then Senior Cup coach John Broderick and asked for recommendations outside of the so-called "big players" for Munster trials, Ryan was top of the list.

"Donnacha didn't start the first Cup match but played the other matches and got better and better," Cross says.

"He was very raw and aggressive in school. But I think that is a great thing, John did too. He maybe just gave away too many penalties.

"But he worked hard at it. The problem is getting the balance right. If you knock it out of him by telling him to be nice, then it's gone from his game.

"He was physically big enough for the U-21s and he was only 19 at the time. He came in and made a great impression during a trial match and would have been picked but he broke his collarbone in the last play.

"He was superb in the lineout, really messed up the opposition ball. This was before lifting was allowed.

"We needed someone who was really aggressive because there were too many nice school boys around. He was a big lad with a real steely determination to want to make the team."

Ryan's reputation would blossom from there and it wasn't long before the major All-Ireland League (AIL) clubs were sniffing around. Whelan remained a constant source of support and played a big role in helping Ryan make that next step.


"I was afraid to send him to the big clubs because he was still very green rugby-wise," Whelan adds.

"I knew Murray Kidd, who was coaching Sunday's Well at the time. I asked Murray would he be interested in Donnacha and would he do some one-on-one work.

"I'd credit Murray with a lot of Donnacha's progression. He would meet him between lectures and do weights and personal coaching with him.

"After that, I knew I had him at a level where no one would be able to leave him on the sideline. He was like a sponge, he soaked up information."

Shannon would eventually be Ryan's next home and after winning an AIL title with the Limerick club in 2006, he was on Munster's radar.

Not many would have expected the young lad with the raw aggression to end up in the bright lights of Paris with Racing 92, but here we are.

On Saturday, a big group will gather in Nenagh to watch one of their own attempt to become a European Cup champion for the second time.

Not bad for someone who only took up rugby to try and make the Tipp minor team.

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