Monday 20 January 2020

Irish rugby's unluckiest player knows heartbreak from both sides of the Leinster-Munster rivalry

Will Slattery

Will Slattery

Luck can come in many forms during a player's career. For one person, it could be benefiting from the bounce of the ball to cross the line for a crucial try. For another, it could be picking up an injury on the eve of a major international. But for one particularly unfortunate Irish player, it was the misfortune of being in the right place at the wrong time - twice.

Niall Ronan was an industrious flanker who enjoyed a good innings at club level with Leinster and Munster, as well as winning four international caps with Ireland. The tenacious back row started his career with his home province in 2003, with the Meath man making 37 appearances in four seasons under three different coaches.

He then moved south in 2007, where enjoyed a stellar few seasons, standing out as a skillful ball-handling back row in a successful Munster team before injury forced him to retire in 2014.

So if he enjoyed a ten-year provincial career that included two Celtic League medals and international honours, why exactly is Niall Ronan unlucky?

Well, let's start with this week ten years ago. The 23-year-old Ronan was named on the bench for the biggest Irish club rugby clash ever, as Leinster hosted Munster in a 'home' Heineken Cup semi-final in Lansdowne Road.

Despite coming into the game with huge expectations after swashbuckling away victories over Bath and Toulouse, Leinster were walloped by their rivals in a humbling 24-point defeat.

Fast-forward three years later to when the 26-year-old Ronan was again named on the bench for the biggest Irish club rugby clash ever, as Munster hosted Leinster in a 'home' Heineken Cup semi-final in Croke Park.

Despite coming into the game with huge expectations after annihilating Sale and the Ospreys, Munster were walloped by their rivals in a humbling 19-point defeat - only this time, Ronan was wearing a red jersey.

DUBLIN, IRELAND - MAY 02: Munster forward Alan Quinlan (cap )is held back from Leinster captain Leo Cullen by Peter Stringer during the Heineken Cup Semi Final between Munster and Leinster at Croke Park on May 2, 2009 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

So despite being part of two superb teams riding high, Ronan was the only player involved in both encounters who never enjoyed the mouth-watering taste of victory.

That turn of events may seem unlucky to some, but Ronan is more introspective.

"I never thought about it like that," Ronan responds when asked if he felt like the unluckiest player in rugby after his semi-final misfortune.

"Strange things happen in sport. Sometimes good things happen, sometimes bad things happen. Hopefully I get it [luck] back in the future."

Ronan, who now runs a personal training business in Drogheda, is good to remain positive but being on the wrong end of two upset defeats must be hard to take. There is no doubt which loss hurt the openside more though.

Back in 2006, he was never more than a back-up player, and didn't get on the field during Munster's famous 30-6 win. It is probably just as well, since the victorious pack were ferociously dominant and crushed everything in their path.

Still, it is hard for Ronan to believe that it has been a decade since he emerged from the Lansdowne Road dressing room to see the stand engulfed in red.

"It feels like I wasn't even involved in it, it was so long ago," he says.

"It was built up in the Leinster squad as 'this is it, this is our chance'. We all thought we had a good chance of winning but then we went out and Munster gave us a hiding.

"It must have been intimidating for the lads to warm up in a sea of red like that. I was on the bench so I don't really know but it must have been a huge advantage."

DUBLIN, IRELAND - APRIL 23: Munster fans celebrates the third try scored in injury time to seal the win during the Heineken Cup Semi Final match between Leinster and Munster at Lansdowne Road on April 23, 2006 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Ronan left Leinster in 2007 in pursuit of more game time, and even though the Munster back row was stocked with unbelievable talent, he was given an opportunity. Ronan played the best rugby of his career during the 2008/09 season, as Munster looked to repeat as European champions, and the flanker is delighted with his career choice.

"I'll be totally honest, I'm very grateful for everything Leinster did for me but moving to Munster was the best decision I ever made," Ronan said.

"I got to play much more games and coming from a GAA background, the parish mentality down in Munster suited me."

Munster advanced to the semi-final in 2009 for a rematch with Leinster, in large part thanks to a glorious try Ronan scored in Thomond Park against Clermont in the pool stages.

The final four venue was Croke Park, which somehow made for an even greater atmosphere than three years before. This time, Ronan was a key man. He started on the bench, but knew he had big role to play, although unfortunately for him, the team was trailing by 19 points when he got onto the field.

"Rugby had grown a lot since the first game so for the game in Croke Park, everyone was looking for tickets," he says.

"It was probably 10 times bigger than the first game.

"I got on with 20 minutes to go and we were chasing the game. Usually it was the other way around that season. Frustration is the main word I would use to describe what I was feeling after that game."

Ronan has a unique insight into the mindset of Irish club rugby, particularly as a member of arguably the two best Irish club side's not to win the Heineken Cup. 2006 Leinster and 2009 Munster looked so sure of themselves that it is still tough to figure out how they were actually beaten.

Having been present in both dressing rooms, Ronan doesn't think the teams suffered from overconfidence. Instead he chalks it up to the 'strange things' that happen in sports sometimes.

"Neither team I was involved in just thought they could turn up and win the game," Ronan said.

"The preparation we put in was key and it was just unfortunate that I ended up on the losing team both times."

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