Thursday 14 December 2017

End of an era as Munster bids farewell to the last of the old breed

Donnacha Ryan bids farewell to the Munster fans after his final game at Thomond Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Donnacha Ryan bids farewell to the Munster fans after his final game at Thomond Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

The esteem in which Donnacha Ryan is held in Munster was perhaps best summed up by Anthony Foley this time two years ago.

Paul O'Connell had called time on his Munster career and Foley was left with the unenviable task of attempting to find a replacement, or so it seemed.

Foley knew that he didn't have to look too far and having battled in the trenches alongside Ryan, he didn't need to be reminded about the calibre of player that he had on his hands.

"When I worked with Ireland a season or two ago, when he (O'Connell) got injured, Donnacha Ryan stepped in and did a very good job at international rugby," Foley said.

"So there's no question that he can do a job for Munster in that kind of role. But it will be a Donnacha Ryan role, not a Paul O'Connell role."

And that is exactly what has happened in the two seasons since - the 'Donnacha Ryan role' was created, and how he has thrived in the added responsibility that has been put on his shoulders.

The thing about Ryan is, he has never tried to be O'Connell, but having bided his time for so long behind the former Ireland skipper, Donncha O'Callaghan and Mick O'Driscoll, he was always being primed to eventually take over the mantle.

That said, stepping into those kind of shoes was even more unenviable than Foley trying to find a replacement, but since O'Connell hung up his boots, Ryan has grown into a real leader, both on and off the pitch.

A late bloomer, Ryan's path might well have led him to Croke Park rather than the Aviva Stadium, but the Tipperary minors were convinced that he was "too skinny" to cut it with the top hurlers in the county.

Towering

At 17, the Nenagh native decided that the quickest way for him to add bulk to his towering frame was to take up rugby, and St Munchin's College were only too glad to assist.

Ryan's brief spell in the Limerick school culminated with winning the Senior Cup in 2002, but coming from a GAA background with limited rugby knowledge, it wasn't always easy.

Being thrown in the deep end had its risks. Ryan was a penalty conceding machine before Munster's youth coaches really drilled home the intricacies of the sport.

"It's a very lonely place when lads think you're too big for your boots," he recalled in later years. "At that age when you come from a small town and you're making the dizzy heights of the Nenagh Guardian, you actually believe it when people are telling you you're great.

"I was only 17 at the time and was very gullible. When it comes too thick and fast you start thinking you could be that good."

It proved to be a valuable lesson and one that has stuck with Ryan throughout his 13-year professional career.

That Ryan was an unused sub in Munster's 2008 Heineken Cup final success would go some way to explaining why his winners' medal hasn't meant that much to him until recently.

Munster haven't managed to get back on top of Europe since, and Ryan has been at the forefront of their relentless pursuit of former glories. They fell short this season but there is a real sense that the foundations have been laid for the new generation.

To add a third Guinness PRO12 medal to his collection would be the icing on the cake for a player who has far exceeded his expectations in a sport that he initially only took up to increase his chances of hurling for Tipp.

"I spent my whole adult life playing with Munster," Ryan said last week as he did his best to avoid the adulation that was pouring out from the terraces at Thomond Park.

"I have known nothing else. I got to play with my heroes growing up."

Next season he will embark on a new challenge and it is one that in truth, has been on the cards for some time.

The important thing to remember about Ryan's impending move to Racing is that the IRFU's decision not to renew his central contract has by no means forced him to leave the country.

Munster offered him a fresh deal but it was dwarfed by what the wealthy French club put on the table.

Prior to Ryan signing a three-year deal late in 2013, he had flirted with the idea of a new challenge abroad. Back then, Perpignan and Northampton were amongst the clubs sniffing around but he opted to stay put.

However, with the IRFU signalling the end of his international career at 47 caps, now is the time for the 33-year old to try something new. And why not?

"You live it every day, from when you wake up in the morning to go to training until you go to bed at night," Ryan admitted last month.

"You walk around Tipperary or Limerick or Cork... your family are all part of it. It's players' parents together up in the stand.

"It's a massive family and it's something that I have really enjoyed. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity. I loved every minute of it."

Ryan is the last of the old breed left at Munster and his departure signals the end of an era that has brought huge success to the province. His route to the top is a reminder that the Academy systems are not the only way to get to where you want to go.

Three years ago, Ryan told this newspaper: "You need to have a good appreciation of what it means to wear the red jersey and we have so many exciting talents in the squad that hopefully some of my experience can rub off on them."

When he takes off the famous red jersey for the 167th and final time tomorrow, he can do so with his head held high at having given everything he has to the 'Donnacha Ryan role.'

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