Dealing with life's slings and arrows - John Ryan's Munster omission could hurt his Ireland chances
An old prop forward we know and love was explaining recently the reasons why two technically competent tightheads could, in the same afternoon, have wildly differing fortunes against the same opponent. Typically the first bloke gets called ashore, and then his replacement brings stability where previously there was chaos. And everyone immediately jumps to career-defining conclusions about the three men involved. "Sometimes a fella you're up against just doesn't suit you," the old prop said. "It can be as simple and as complicated as that."
Lo and behold last weekend, a matter of days after he had delivered this analysis, Munster tighthead John Ryan gets dragged off the Lansdowne Road pitch after just 44 minutes against Leinster. True, it was only his second start after three runs off the bench, but in a game where Munster were by a distance second best you expected a man of his stature to be left longer in the fight. Perhaps there were other scraps he was losing.
"Thought it was a bit soon," Ryan concedes. "You don't want to be taken off that early - 50 minutes is the target, isn't it, for a prop? He (Rassie Erasmus) was just changing things up. He changed another two or three about five minutes later. I just think we had to change something."
Well, Erasmus has gone and changed a bit more, and now Ryan finds himself on the bench for today's game in Stade Pierre-Fabre. After eight starts in a row in Europe last season, it's a slap in the chops.
What will worry the tighthead now is that Joe Schmidt might be standing nearby with a wet fish in his hands, ready to land another blow. With a view to the Guinness international series next month, these European games are the tools players use to nail down their places. Which is not easy if you're not starting. So the least Ryan needs today is to get on early enough and make a positive impact.
The latter would involve not missing any tackles - like the one on Rory O'Loughlin last week - or getting bumped on a carry by a 10, as Johnny Sexton did to him. Meantime, the stuff he can't control is what Finlay Bealham is doing for Connacht. Challenging times then. But it's not as if this is new territory.
In his early days, on the satellite that is Munster's sub-academy, John Ryan was given the heave-ho back to the real world. And much later, having restarted his career, he had to cope with a debilitating illness which would be a scourge no matter what your line of business, but an uncensored nightmare if you're a prop forward in professional rugby. He won both battles.
First the knockback. The sub-academy is not quite a twilight zone but it's a difficult space to inhabit: you're expected to live the life that might end up with a place in the academy proper, but just as easily you might get told to move along. And, as a 20-year-old, he was. So did he think that ship had sailed?
"I did, I did, because I was in college and I was up every morning at 6.30 . . . 7.0 in the gym. The next thing, I was left go. I'm thinking, 'what the hell will I do now?' This was at the height of the recession, like. I had to go out and get my own job. Everything was suffering because I was working and I was training, so I couldn't really keep it all going. Then I was left go. I was, 'Right, we'll go away now and have the crack in college. We'll go out and go drinking like all the other lads do.' And I did that for a while. Then I went working and really training hard. I was balancing everything together."
The work was nocturnal, on the door of a nightclub in Cork city. He loved it. And he lived the student life as well, with social stuff high on his agenda. He summered well. If there was a gig, he went to it; if lads were heading off somewhere, he was up for that too. Interestingly, though, the S&C boys in UCC took him aside and told him he had real potential, if he was prepared to put in the work.
"I just came back in pretty much atrocious shape and they just said to me, 'You're going to be a pro.' And I just said, 'Jesus, are you serious? This guy?' I lost about 12kg in five weeks. It was a pretty big transformation."
Early in the new AIL season he had one of those fortunate experiences where scouts to go watch a particular player and come away impressed by his opponent. So UCC v UL Bohs, Ryan v Dave Kilcoyne, and the next thing there's an offer to get back in the system.
He was about six months into that Munster career, and thinking about specialising as a tighthead instead of swapping over and back, when disaster struck in the shape of colitis.
"I was scrummaging very well, I felt; I was giving it to Killer and (James) Cronin; I felt I was really competing. And then I got sick and I lost eight/nine kilos. And then I was told you're not big enough or powerful enough to be a tighthead, so you're going loosehead. I played a lot of loosehead. It was just, I suppose you can't say it . . . well, a kick in the balls really. A pain in the ass. But look, it's all behind me now and not an issue."
Ryan turned 29 in August. A good age for a prop, but you wonder if the early years spent covering both sides of the scrum didn't delay him nailing down the tighthead side.
"I believe so, yeah. I think that's a thing of the past. I'm tighthead now and that's it. There is no more going back to loosehead. It's just too hard to do. When I came in, I was playing tighthead at club level and doing a decent job but wasn't at the level needed so I played loose, tight, loose. There were injuries after that and I'd slot in. I was well able but then maybe time took its toll and it was harder to do that swap.
"So yeah, I do think I maybe suffered a bit playing both sides, falling between two stools. You need to focus on one, really. They are completely different positions. The man watching on TV mightn't have much of a clue about scrums, thinks that props are the same, but there is this huge difference between the two positions, technically. So, for me, moving forward, I won't be going back loosehead. I certainly hope not anyway."
Since his Ireland debut, against Canada, that side of his career has taken off. Despite Bealham's powerful cameo against New Zealand in Chicago a year ago, it was Ryan who Schmidt turned to as back-up for Tadhg Furlong in the last Six Nations. And it was significant that Furlong described Ryan last season as the form tighthead in the country. Props don't tend to be too generous in their comments about rivals. Even if Furlong - a Lion-in-waiting at the time - felt secure enough to say it, his comment was spot on.
After last weekend, it's clear Rassie Erasmus thinks that leaderboard has changed. Ryan can't control his match minutes in Castres this afternoon but, given decent pitch time, he can lay down a marker to start against Racing in Thomond Park next Saturday. If he's on the bench again for that one, then the international window next month is not going to open very wide for him, and his run of eight consecutive caps, starting with his Six Nations debut in Rome, will be broken.
So even allowing for his shortcomings against Leinster, you'd forgive him if his first thought at being dragged off ahead of everyone else that day was, why me?
"No, not really," he says. "Obviously that goes through your head, but he's made the call. You've got to get off. There's no point in having a sulk, is there?"
Well not now there isn't. Too busy getting back to where he needs to be.
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