Wednesday 21 February 2018

Donnacha Ryan enthused by geology and novelist brother-in-law as he explores life after rugby

Donnacha Ryan. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Donnacha Ryan. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Friday night in Cardiff will be an anniversary for Donnacha Ryan. It was there, in the altogether different atmosphere of a World Cup warm-up on a sunny August afternoon in 2015, that the second row restarted his international career.

The previous season had been almost a write-off, salvaged only in March when he had finally recovered from foot surgery on an injury that threatened his career. By his own reckoning a long-term injury victim in his position needs about 10 games to be at the right level for Test rugby. "You need to be beaten up a good bit before you're really conditioned to get back in there again," he says.

The foot issue had started two seasons before that. He hadn't played a Test since March 2013. That was two Championship titles he missed out on, and with Paul O'Connell, Devin Toner and Iain Henderson all nailed on for the World Cup squad, Ryan was no dead cert to join them. So how did he feel running out in Cardiff that day?

"I wasn't one bit nervous at all. I'd say whatever number of caps I'd had before I was every bit as nervous every day, but I wasn't one bit nervous. It was great. My mam and dad were there and that's always brilliant. I thought: 'Right, this could be the last one here.' But look, I know it's very philosophical, and crap, but . . . it was a very enjoyable game."

The day went well. So did the World Cup. When he heads back to Wales this week he will be injury free, and in form: 14 games for Munster and five for Ireland. It's been an eventful Championship already for Ryan. Left out of the match-day squad for Edinburgh, he had to tag along as 24th man, which is like being sent on a night out with only rattlers in your pocket.

A week later he had leapfrogged into the starting line-up in Rome. Great to be part of such a successful nine-try mission, but he ended up taking a bullet for Devin Toner when referee Glen Jackson was getting tired of Ireland transgressing near their own line.

Ryan's Zen state in this second coming doesn't allow for negative thoughts, however, either on the injustice of the yellow card or the selection knock-back from Schmidt. When he starts rambling on about the "synergy in the squad," and how it doesn't matter who fills the shirt, you fear the worst: in the saving of Private Ryan he's had the interesting bits drained out of him. Then he describes the France game in a way you rarely get from modern-day athletes.

Where the new generation talk about tight contests against giant opponents as "arm wrestles" against "big units", Ryan manages something more descriptive. In real English. "It was like being trapped under rubble sometimes," he says of the physical challenge against the biggest pack in Europe.

When Ryan he gets around to writing a book it will be comfortably above the average for the genre. Which is presuming it will be a rugby book, when it could be about much more. His brother-in-law William Ryan - remarkably he's not from Tipp - is a novelist, and the player appreciates the effort involved in getting words from the head onto the page.

"I find it fascinating how a writer has to sit down; have a long plan and the discipline to do it," he says.

The brother-in-law is fairly prolific, already with a critically well-received trilogy to his name. Based on the cases of a cop in the Moscow Militia in the 1930s, Ryan is a fan as well as, now, a relation.

"It's fiction but the detail and the information is all factual stuff . . . the time invested in learning the history of that time. I like when I read stuff to get something informative out of it . . . it's Moscow in the '30s, the NKVD (Russian Internal Affairs) and all them. It's very good. Obviously I'm plugging him away here, but . . . writers have a tough gig. You'd appreciate it, having the discipline . . . when you see it first hand."

You could see Ryan scribbling away happily, for example, about something he stumbled across only recently: Geology, a degree in which, unfortunately, his graduation clashed with Test business in November. He manages to see a connection between this and his day job.

"It's all about time and pressure, which is pretty similar to rugby! Very good, very enjoyable. You build knowledge and perspective on things. Everyone can kind of see my job on a Saturday whereas I find other people's jobs very interesting. Obviously I have the best job in the world - from my point of view; the trick is, in years to come, to try and find a next-best job. And the reality is it gives me massive scope for knowledge, what ways you can go down."

His preparation for the after-life - he is 33, the second oldest in the Ireland squad - began when he was out injured, and involved work experience with a firm which trade oil and gas bonds. It sounds like a lucky strike.

"I wanted to be as productive as possible," he says. "So yeah, try a few days with them and if you like it great, and if you don't, well the history will show you've an appetite for work. That's the reality of when you're looking for a job afterwards. And I went in with the wrong attitude. I told them I'm going to get a career out of this, whereas now after two or three weeks it was fantastic. They brought a piece of the moon to show us, in cases. And there was a lot of field trips: the Inch Conglomerate. It was really good, very interesting and I'd recommend anyone to do this. The Inch Conglomerate is massive, down by Kilmurry Bay - which is beautiful. You can go down and do a geological history of all the terrain. Yeah, it's very interesting, but I won't bore you with all that stuff. Maybe with a few pints we'll have a chat about it but I could be giving someone a stick to beat me with here. . ."

That's more likely to come from his team-mates than his opponents on Friday night. Ryan is wary of what Wales will bring now that they are backed into a corner. And while they are not in the same heavyweight class up front as France, you wonder how much time Ireland will invest in trying to rob them of lung-power. Last week that meant a whole lot of mauling, which was not always a case of what you see is what you get.

"Yeah, you can't take for granted what that work does," Ryan says. "You may not be making a massive amount of yards but you're taking out of them in other areas. That's why we were still going to the maul even if we were only getting one yard, two yards. You're still taking energy out of them. It's a different type of fitness when you're mauling or scrummaging. You expend an awful lot more energy doing that sort of work than you would running around, and then transitioning to one from the other - that's when you start beginning to test a team's fitness.

"I wouldn't take anything for granted. Those mauls that we did do, they did take it out of the French forwards in the last 20 minutes. They're massive men. There were times when we sacked a few of them onto the ground and then they're picking themselves up - again. That does have a big bearing on the game. It's not pretty but that's what happens."

To be involved so centrally in all of this is a massive plus for him. Despite his age and position he has never been in better fettle, never had more enthusiasm for it all. His contract is up at the end of the season, and if it doesn't work out with the IRFU then you could see him being open to another plan in another place. The idea of stopping, with this head of steam up, is for another day.

"Living the dream," he says. "That's (Donncha) O'Callaghan's line. I'd be a big fan of that philosophy. He's impressive to be still going strong at his age (38 in three weeks). Even Strings (Peter Stringer), chatting to him recently, they both train extremely hard in the gym. You'd think that when you're pushing on in years, you should be minding your body but they're driving it on. They're even more in tune of what the body requires. You're more appreciative of where you are, especially on days like Saturday. It was so competitive up front. It was brilliant. I really, really enjoyed it."

You hope Friday will bring more of the same.

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