Old-school style helps Ryan to crack the locks
Donnacha Ryan made his first Six Nations start against Scotland this year. Afterwards he was named man of the match. One thing that is certain is the accolade barely entered his conscious thinking.
If Ryan is now seen as one of the leaders on an Irish team shorn of older, wiser heads, it is because his old school perspective has a resonance that other players can sense. An early lesson in modesty has stood to the secondrow and resides in his head as a salutary tale of pride and fall.
The result has been an ambitious character, who knows the value of caution while Ryan’s aggression about the park and lineout ability often takes him close to the giant bottle of Champagne for stand-out performances, he is a talk-it-down sort of player.
The genesis of that attitude was as a 17-year-old, when he was picked for the Munster Schools and Irish Youth team. That year he landed on his rugby feet and early signals were good. It was, as he now knows, just the beginning. But not the beginning he thought it was.
“My first year of rugby I made the Munster youths and the Irish Youths and went back thinking I was very good,” he says.
“I went into (St) Munchin’s a year later. It’s a very lonely place with lads who think you’re too big for your boots. It was a great lesson for me and I’ll never forget it. It was more of a case of where I thought I was better than I actually was. I’ve no problem saying that.
“At that age and you come from a small town and you’re making the Nenagh Guardian – the dizzy heights – you actually think and people are telling you you’re great and I was only 17, so very gullible. When it comes too thick and fast you start thinking, jeez I could be this good.
“Sport is the best leveller of all especially in rugby if a guy is getting too big for his boots you can do him. It was brilliant. Munchin’s for me was a tough place to go. I got a good Leaving Cert, got a Senior Cup and made some good friends and a great learning experience and I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t had that.”
Perhaps typically Munster his education in the basic virtues of devaluing the self has actually empowered Ryan much more at a personal level than if he strode on to every pitch with a swagger and a grin. A late convert from hurling his stripped down thinking and application on the pitch has warmed him to the terraces. Pass like a centre, run like a winger his thinking has always been to improve. That Declan Kidney has learned to love a little more in the past year.
Ryan started all of Ireland’s Test matches in the summer tour to New Zealand, which possibly has dubious merit as it swung between an almost win against the Kiwis and a score more often seen in a mismatched schools game. He looks back at the scar tissue with clarity.
“One game can make or break you,” he says. “The last game we played in New Zealand . . . there’s no two ways about it that the week before we all thought we could have made it.
“The week after, we were like broken men for four weeks. There was a lot of hurt there and you bring it with you.
“If you are not clever enough to learn from those experiences, you’d be a very foolish rugby player.”
Alive to the common denominator in all athletes’ thinking, the process of renewal and reinvention, the Springboks present an opportunity this weekend.
That Ireland is not as bad as 60-0 is the theme of the day. A game against Scotland, Italy or Fiji wouldn’t be enough but the mass of South Africa is. Victory would patch the wound.
“You always have doubts about yourself which is to try to evolve,” says Ryan. “You can always be better. It was a negative doubt back then while it’s a positive doubt and how better can I be today. I suppose I would look at the motivation, not in a case of being fearful about things but a case of how good can I be and strive to be better.”
The secondrow’s challenge from four years ago when he made his Ireland debut was to prize apart the seemingly unbreakable duo of Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan.
In search of game time Ryan’s positional appetite was Catholic and flanker did him just fine for pitch time. No longer.
He may have learned the game with Subbuteo men and wore a Man Utd shirt to a Munster trial.
But Ryan cracked the locks in Munster and Ireland. The door is open.