Sunday 17 February 2019

Exiles remain valuable option - Donnacha Ryan's form with Racing should keep him on Joe Schmidt's radar

 

‘And you’d hope that, if push comes to shove on the injury front, Joe Schmidt would respond in kind’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘And you’d hope that, if push comes to shove on the injury front, Joe Schmidt would respond in kind’ Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

The recurring theme around Ireland in the build-up to this tournament has been the padding that now protects the squad. As in, layers of bodies. Or a depth chart to use the industry term. Where once there was a prayer book and Rosary beads hanging on a clatter of hooks in the changing room, now there are green shirts of highly competent replacements waiting for the call.

This explains why there was concern but not panic when in a short space of time Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson were ruled out of the early rounds of this Six Nations. Ireland still were able to start against England last week with Leinster's first-choice pairing: James Ryan, who even at this stage in his career is a world-class lock, and Devin Toner.

Donnacha Ryan Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Donnacha Ryan Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Toner went into the game with an ankle complaint and came out of it needing an operation. His departure just before the hour brought Quinn Roux onto the field. Although Joe Schmidt has been a fan of Roux - it was in his incarnation as Leinster coach that Schmidt brought Roux over from South Africa - this was not even close to like-for-like.

Roux started alongside Ryan in Murrayfield yesterday, and Ultan Dillane was on the bench. Dillane was in the original squad of 38, which reflected his good form for Connacht this season.

He is a big, athletic ball-friendly piece of machinery. But sometimes he looks a bit laid-back about where he's supposed to be on the field and when he's supposed to be there. Which drives Schmidt to distraction. We understand last week in Ireland camp reinforced that idea.

How appropriate then that Donnacha Ryan should have been on this island only the previous week on a promo. At 35, the Racing second-row is hardly a coming thing, but when a Scottish colleague was asking last week about the rising number of locks getting injured his next question was: "What about Donnacha Ryan?"

Ryan made no secret that it pained him to go to Paris, but time was running out on his career. The IRFU had cut him from a central contract, so he could have stayed with Munster and taken a financial hit, or gone to France for €300k a year. The removal from central contract status had clear implications for his Ireland career. He bit the bullet and left.

A debilitating neck injury meant his debut for his new club was protracted to the point where people were asking would he last one season, never mind two. He recovered, and prospered, and now they are very keen to extend his deal.

So if Ryan could deliver for Racing in the Top 14 and in Europe surely he could still do a job for Ireland? Well, put it this way: from a standing start he has become the team's lineout leader. This may not be the equivalent of Felipe Contepomi completing his medical degree through English, but nonetheless it's a massive achievement. Ryan is communicating through a foreign language in an extremely technical area, in a culture where players don't naturally communicate - so problem-solving on the hoof is harder - and where the make-up of the team means players from different countries have different ways of doing things. After that, stepping back into the Ireland set-up would be stress relief for a player who thrives on detail.

Of course it won't happen because what Ireland are experiencing currently with their injury issues at lock is not a crisis. And it will take a critical turn of events to change the policy on players who have left the Irish system.

It's worth reiterating that the success of our national side relies in large part on having our best players based at home. It is not perfect. The arrogance, whatever about the science being applied, to the game-management of young players who are in, or close to, the representative game is inescapable. And it undermines clubs. This is lost in the nice colours that make up the big picture. At the top end, however, the plan gets results.

So the international door will not be re-opened to players taking flight for clubs in England or France. Nor should it. But when the World Cup rolls around the unwritten rule will be a looser affair. Still the policy will be to fill from within, and Joe Schmidt will have 31 names in front of him already, all of them spread across the four provinces.

He knows there is no chance of each of those 31 being fit to fly to Japan. So he has another batch on standby. So far so good. If his injuries pile up in one particular corner however, and if that swell in numbers takes place in the run-up to the tournament, then Schmidt would be mad not to do the expedient thing, and dial up one or two of the diaspora.

We've seen that expedience at work as recently as last week. Sean O'Brien is preparing to go to London Irish after the World Cup. When Simon Zebo was in the same boat he was turfed overboard straight away, and saw out the remaining days in this country only in red. O'Brien's only issues for Ireland selection will be form and fitness.

In Donnacha Ryan's case that would be an easy call to make. He didn't storm off in a huff. He didn't conduct a beauty contest between the IRFU and continental suitors. The union sent him a clear message that he was no longer centre stage, so he did the sensible thing and packed his bags. Typical of the man he carried it off with dignity. And you'd hope that, if push comes to shove on the injury front, Joe Schmidt would respond in kind.

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