Saturday 20 January 2018

'I'm a real farmer's son -- I took to the game like a fish to water'

Tighthead determined to keep on learning and make most of every chance he gets

Declan Rooney

Sitting behind World Cup winner BJ Botha and Irish international Stephen Archer in the Munster pecking order means we don't get to see that much of John Ryan.

But whenever those precious minutes on the field are handed to the Cork tighthead, Ryan (25) is hell-bent on making the most of them.

An early-season knee injury for Botha meant the Inniscarra native featured in Munster's first four Pro12 games of the season, with starts and appearances off the bench just reward for his good pre-season form.

The fact that he had started both of Munster's pre-season games against Gloucester and London Irish as a loosehead displays his adaptability, but though he cut his teeth with the No 1 shirt on his back, he insists No 3 is his favourite role.

"My game is in a good place now, but I am a tighthead more than a loosehead -- although I can do both.

"At the start of this season I played about five games at tighthead, but if they are short on the loose side I can help out.

"Having the ability to do both is another feather in my cap, but some people say it can hamper your chances of getting into the team as well. It might have hurt me in a way, but it is something I want to retain, it's a natural thing for me I suppose," adds Ryan, who is in the middle of contract talks with Munster.

In fact, it would be more accurate to say that Ryan learned his trade as a back-row, as it wasn't until his physical development as a teenager cut short a promising career as a No 8.

"I'm a real farmer's son from out in the countryside, so even playing rugby as a young lad was strange for us. It was all football and hurling around us. But out of the blue a fella came up to me and asked if I'd be interested in playing rugby for the U-10s in Muskerry.

"We were all GAA lads, but the bigger lads, the farmers' sons, seemed to do well at the rugby. I took to it like a fish to water. I played a lot in the back-row and No 8 until I was 14 or 15. I was a big lad back then and really I don't think I have grown too much since.

"Then I changed to playing prop at U-15 level in Christians. I wasn't getting away as quick as I once was at the back of the scrum, so playing prop was the natural transition for me," says Ryan, whose younger brother William has also trained with Munster this season.

SWITCH

The move across the front-row was a more gradual one, though, and it wasn't until his spell with the Munster U-20s and sub-academy was abruptly ended that he contemplated the switch.

"I went into the sub-academy and the Munster U-20s and played with lads like Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry, Ian Nagle, Dave Foley and Stephen Archer -- we were all in the same U-20s team," he says.

"My move into the sub-academy came at the same time that I went to college, but after a while I got dropped off the academy. It was disappointment after disappointment really.

"In fairness, I got out of shape a bit in college too, though. I enjoyed the high life a bit and then I enjoyed the freedom of not being attached to a professional outfit or an academy system.

"I went off and had my fun, but I soon realised that I had to take it seriously. They asked me to make the move across then so it was an easy choice.

"Conor Twomey was the coach of UCC at that stage and I was called into a meeting with himself, Gary Byrne and Jeff Gomez. They told me I had the chance of being a pro rugby player, but they thought I'd have a better chance of making it on the tighthead side. It took off from there."

But the obstacles kept popping up in his bid to return to the professional game. As soon as his fitness began to return, the much-needed bulk of a front-row began to disappear. It was a tough balance to attain.

"The transition was bloody hard, and the harder I trained to get into shape the lighter I became, which is not much help as a tighthead. I wasn't able to hack the scrums, but my work out the field was hugely improved," says Ryan.

"And technically the switch from loosehead to tight was more difficult than the move from No 8 to loosehead. My scrummaging wasn't going as well as it could have, but my outfield play got me noticed. That's when I was brought back into the Munster set-up.

"Paul McCarthy, the Munster scrum coach, and Laurie Fisher spotted me again and they brought me back in 2011. I was brought straight back into the senior set-up on a training contract.

"That was where my scrum work really started to improve. And it is still improving."

The learning curve was steep after he was parachuted into the Munster senior set-up. Facing the likes of John Hayes, Botha and Marcus Horan afforded Ryan the chance to learn the tricks of his trade, but they immediately showed trust in him, which was a huge boost.

"I came in the first day and I remember going up against Wian du Preez. I was just out of college and that was a real learning day. Wian gave me a huge amount of pointers.

"I have gotten a fair amount of beatings from them, but every time you lose a scrum you learn something too. You might get hammered in the scrum, and you might go backwards, but if you hold up the scrum then it's fair enough," he says.

A three-week loan spell at London Irish at the beginning of last season improved Ryan's reputation, so when his Heineken Cup debut arrived against Racing Metro he was confident in his own abilities.

Right now, he's back to playing the waiting game. When the next chance arrives, Ryan is determined to grab on tight. "Trying to get game time is my big goal for the rest of the year," he says. "I got a few games early on and played again around the autumn internationals.

"I was happy with those early-season games, though. I wouldn't say I was dropped on form, I think I was dropped because of the calibre of player that's ahead of me.

"You are always waiting for the opportunity and they don't come too often. But when they do, you have to be ready."

Irish Independent

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