Hurling heritage helping Ryan fill legend's boots
DONNACHA RYAN can be paid no greater compliment than that offered by one of his team-mates this week – Ireland are not missing Paul O'Connell as much because of Ryan's excellence.
There is no doubt the 2009 Lions captain still casts a long shadow. Were he fit there is no question that O'Connell would be first choice in the Ireland second-row. The good news is that when he does return it is certain he will have Ryan for company.
The respect for O'Connell across the four nations who contribute to the Lions is undiminished by the accolades now being directed in Ryan's direction.
If anything O'Connell's legend is growing because people are salivating at the prospect of the two players getting an extended run alongside each other up to and including the 2015 World Cup.
It is astonishing when reflecting on Ryan's performances in a green shirt to remember that this is only his second season as a Six Nations regular. He was initially held back by the misguided belief that he and O'Connell are too similar to co-exist.
But even then instead of wallowing in a pit of self-pity, Ryan decided to augment his skill-set, and reinvented himself as a viable blindside flanker.
Indeed he credits his ability to pack down in the back-row as the main reason he was part of the Ireland squad that competed in the 2011 World Cup. He started the pool game against Russia in the back-row before moving to the second-row when Denis Leamy replaced Donncha O'Callaghan in that game.
"I wouldn't have got to the World Cup but for that versatility," recalled Ryan recently.
Ryan's ability to eke the positives out of most situations marks him out as a special breed. There is a refreshing lack of ego about him.
His rise to prominence has been hugely beneficial to both Munster and Ireland – and extremely timely given O'Connell's travails with his variety of injuries over the last few years. Ironically it is probably because of O'Connell's absences that Ryan has been forced into broadening and expanding his skills.
He has, for example, evolved and improved immeasurably as the line-out manager. He matured as a player to become a dominant personality during the traumatic tour of New Zealand and is now confident in his own authority.
"Any team in the world would miss Paul O'Connell. But Donnacha has really brought his career to a new level," marvelled former Ireland and Munster second-row Mick Galwey.
"He has really matured into a leader. His greatest strength is that he just never seems to quit. His engine is phenomenal and he's hugely intelligent.
"He invariably does the right thing at the right time, a trait that can be foolishly underestimated at times."
Ryan comes up against Richie Gray this weekend with both locks contenders for inclusion in the Lions tour to Australia during the summer.
"They are certainly both candidates," said Galwey. "And it will be interesting to see how they go.
"Donnacha has the qualities to take it to a different level. And he thrives on challenges.
"He will have taken the England result personally. As a result he will look to absolutely dominate in Murrayfield."
The work-load Ryan and Mike McCarthy have been getting through in recent games has been staggering.
Against Wales, Ryan's tackle-count was in the high teens, and in both games so far Ireland have enjoyed over 80pc return out of touch.
"The tackle-count has me amazed," said Galwey. "In my day if a second-row made five or six tackles it was considered a great stat. To be up near 20 is astounding. The amount of punishment those two lads put their bodies through ... wow!"
The evolution of Ryan's rugby career is fascinating. He took up the sport merely as a means to improve his body strength when he failed to make the Tipperary minor hurling team in the same season he represented the county in football. To his surprise he found he had a natural aptitude for rugby. After just one season he was a Munster and Ireland Youths player, had won a Senior Cup medal with St Munchin's and was already on the radar of Munster's academy director Ian Sherwin and head coach Alan Gaffney.
The only problem was he still wasn't convinced rugby was the sport for him.
He turned up to his first Munster Youths trial wearing a Manchester United jersey, missed another trial because he was playing a senior hurling game for Nenagh, got into a row with a referee in his third because when receiving a penalty he thought the official was giving a 'free' against him.
The dream of representing Tipperary in hurling eventually evaporated but despite his successes as an underage rugby player he still viewed the oval-ball game as a past-time and not a viable career path.
His rugby career continued to flourish, though, first with UCC and then with Sunday's Well, and eventually a development contract with Munster was offered and accepted.
He continued to play hurling for UCC when he could. His continuing dalliances were brought to a screeching halt after one particular weekend home. Ryan was watching his club's intermediate team in action when one of the selectors approached him and implored him to come on for the second half.
The selector extending the invitation was his father, an inter-county hurler in his day with Limerick. Donnacha's boots and hurley 'happened' to be in the boot of the car so he togged out and scored two points that day as Nenagh staged a comeback and won the game.
On the Monday morning the match report was included in one of the provincial papers.
A text message from his Munster employers caused him to take the hurley out of his car for good.
Galwey believes his GAA background has benefited Ryan, much the way Galwey's own career was influenced by his own background as a Gaelic footballer.
"I took up rugby in 1983 as a way to build myself up to make the Kerry minor team. Much the same way Donnacha took to rugby," said Galwey.
"I think the hand-to-eye coordination built up from years playing football and hurling is a help."
When he initially embraced rugby Ryan's progression was stymied by the presence of so many quality second-rows. His perseverance through those frustrating seasons is now paying off handsomely.
"He's got this rawness about him," said Galwey. "He's forever working and looking for work.
"That's what'll impress the Lions selectors when they start to finalise their squad for Australia."