Monday 23 September 2019

Alan Quinlan: Humble Tipp man Donnacha Ryan has become a giant among Galacticos

Donnacha's infectious attitude has always set him apart - it's no wonder he's been such a success at Racing

Donnacha Ryan’s figurative standing in the game now matches that burly 6ft 7ins frame. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Donnacha Ryan’s figurative standing in the game now matches that burly 6ft 7ins frame. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile


Donnacha Ryan doesn't do stealthy first impressions. Granted, when you're 6ft 7ins, it can be difficult to fade into the background, but it's not his sheer size that draws you in; it's his engaging personality, his inquisitive nature and his relentless drive to improve.

About 17 years ago I was asked to speak with the Munster Youths side as they were training in my local rugby club Clanwilliam, and answer any questions the group of wide-eyed teenagers may have had about becoming a professional rugby player.

"What is your approach to training?" "How about the breakdown, what's the key to slowing down ball?" "What's the most important thing to get right in the lineout?"

All fairly normal questions, but the funny thing was they were all coming from one young man. You could tell Donnacha had only been in the game a wet week; he obviously knew he needed to cram at every opportunity to keep passing his early rugby exams.

It was only afterwards when I got chatting to him one-on-one that I realised he was also from Tipperary and, much like myself, grew up dreaming of hurling for the Premier. In fact, the reason he took up rugby at 17 years old was to fill out his gangly frame in the hope it would help him make the county minors.

Within a couple of years that same curious kid from Nenagh was lining out alongside me at Shannon, and soon afterwards he was in the Munster set-up trying to kick the s**t out of me and steal my place!

He may have won 47 Ireland caps, a Heineken Cup medal, and played for two of Europe's biggest clubs across a 14-year professional career but Donnacha is still desperate to improve, is incredibly grounded, and proud of his roots - the fact he uses a sliotar as a recovery tool at a club like Racing says it all.

Donnacha was, naturally enough, a bit raw in his early professional days as he got to grips with the skill-set required at the top level, but he was always such a valuable asset because of his athleticism, competitiveness and his win-at-all-costs attitude.

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He always played with an edge, flirting with the boundaries of the laws - a trait that he had in common with yours truly, although it's probably fair to say that he has demonstrated greater control in those highly-energised situations than I may have at times.

I can relate to Donnacha on a number of levels, it's not just how we played the game, or how being from Tipp always made you feel like you had more to prove in a Munster shirt. We could both be terribly cranky on the field; bullish if things weren't going our way.


There has always been a paradox about Donnacha Ryan (right) as a rugby player though: considering the confidence his presence instils in those around him on the field, he has always seemed to lack a little bit of self-belief, and maybe played up the notion that he is just a rural Tipperary lad doing his best for the cause.

The reality is, when your back is against the wall there are few others you would want alongside you ahead of Donnacha Ryan.

In January 2010, we were playing Northampton at Thomond Park in our final Heineken Cup pool game and a home quarter-final was the prize for the victors.

Donnacha replaced Donncha O'Callaghan on 56 minutes, and six minutes later Paul O'Connell was sent to the sin-bin for using hands in the ruck as we were clinging on to a 9-6 lead.

Down to 14 men, and now without two of the best locks in the world, the visitors had a five-metre scrum on a gruelling evening when points were at a premium. The Saints - with a front-row of Soane Tonga'uiha, Dylan Hartley and Euan Murray - could smell blood.

Dougie Howlett put his head in at wing-forward and Northampton moved in for the kill. As I packed down alongside Donnacha in the second-row, his orders were still ringing in my ears, "we will not be f*****g pushed backwards here", and this coming from a man who usually preferred to let his elders do the talking.

Our makeshift pack obeyed his orders, we won the scrum against the head, and somehow escaped with a 12-9 victory to set up a home quarter-final against the same opposition nearly three months later.

That's the kind of man Donnacha is - he never shirks a challenge, he inspires those around him, and can find an extra gear when you are staring down the gauntlet.

It's no wonder he has been such a roaring success in a dressing-room full of superstars.

He may be a humble lad from Nenagh but in a matter of months he has already become one of the most important players at one of the biggest clubs in the world.

Racing have a playing roster brimming with world-class talent, but Donnacha doesn't trade in reputations, his sole currency is expectations - of himself and those around him.


"We have got to have the same attitude as what Donnacha brings to the game. He sets a great example with actions… he demands a lot from us," Joe Rokocoko said this week, that's the same Joe Rokocoko who scored a phenomenal 46 Test tries in seven years as an All Black. Words like that would turn Donnacha bright red with embarrassment.

Don't be fooled by his bashfulness though, Donnacha Ryan's figurative standing in the game now matches that burly 6ft 7ins frame.

He has become a giant among Galacticos and may well be Leinster's biggest obstacle today.

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