John Ryan keeping it real as he focuses on life’s daily battles
Gutsy Munster prop hasn’t allowed a debilitating condition limit his rugby ambitions
John Ryan in action against Edinburgh in last year’s Champions Cup quarter-final at Murrayfield. “I feel like I only got started. I’ve been around since 2011 but I only really kicked on when I was 28.” Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
The Tuesday afternoon sessions are the big ones. Live scrums. Live mauls. Ruck work. Everything. John Ryan knows what to expect. Today he knows it will be brutal. Shy of game time, his first match of the season for Munster last weekend was his second in 10 weeks. He was blowing.
After the training he will pull out of Limerick’s UL High Performance centre and when most people are still at work the prop will point his car in the direction of the crèche to pick up his two-year-old son.
“Felix,” he says. “I love the rugby lifestyle. I get to collect him and spend a bit of time with him. That’s great.”
There is also a baby on the way, due he reckons around the time Munster will “hopefully be playing in the quarter-final of the European Champions Cup.” April.
Life is rugby and rugby is life. It has always been that way for the Irish tighthead and frequently he hasn’t had much say.
When Joe Schmidt selected Ryan to play against Russia in the World Cup it wasn’t only a rugby goal achieved but a physical triumph in the continuing internecine skirmishes with his body, an ongoing guerrilla war with Ulcerative Colitis.
A long drawn out campaign, it is one neither the illness or the prop will truly win but also a challenge the 31-year-old cannot lose. Ryan had to contain another incapacitating flare up at the beginning of this year.
“It affected me again in Six Nations time. So that wasn’t great,” he says. “It is inflammation of the colon, severe cramping of your stomach and something that stays unless you get attention.
“You can’t live with it unless you go to a doctor. I went on a course of steroids which was short term. But long term you have a bit of a come down from a course of steroids so you need to manage it. I have it all medically managed.
“I have to go every eight weeks to hospital. I just go in for the day, a day patient and that’s me settled for another eight weeks and I take my tablets daily.”
There is a note of weariness in his voice that it has been aired before. Far from wishing to make his hospital appointments and the unsteady truce with the disease a defining part of his rugby life, in order to win he has had to make it a familiar adversary.
Ryan’s immune system thinks food, normal gut bacteria, and the cells that line his colon are intruders coming to attack him. The white blood cells that usually protect him, instead attack the lining of his colon. Good at their job they give his gut a really good hiding, the result crippling inflammation and ulcers.
Stress can also act as a trigger and in rugby it is scrum to scrum, week to week selection. Mental and physical, it hits him from two sides.
“Everybody takes for granted watching a game that there’s not much stress attached,” he explains. “There is a good deal of stress attached to the sport. Hopefully when I come out of rugby I will be able to pull back from the medicine and tackle it a bit more naturally, have a quality of life without having to pump my veins full of drugs.
“I also have to use tools now to tackle it. We have access to that kind of stuff for mental wellbeing. You say wellbeing but it’s how to cope with stress, how to cope with even the butterflies on the day of a game. We’ve little coping mechanisms for that which keeps it at bay you know.”
One of the Irish cameos in Japan played out in the third game. Sixteen Irish players made their World Cup debuts against Scotland. Frustrated, Ryan wasn’t one of them. He then sat and watched a hot Japanese side rip into Ireland a week later at the Ecopa Stadium. At 31, Schmidt picked him for Russia in the third match making him the oldest Irish World Cup debutant.
Ryan had been around since 2011 but three years ago, when he was 28-years-old it “kicked in” for him. Part of it was physical with his body behaving. With that he was allowed do all the things he needed to do as a professional athlete.
It gave him assurance and a greater sense of belonging with the elite players. Self worth and confidence grew. Maybe, too, there was maturity.
What unspooled from that was a first senior international against Canada in the autumn of 2016. He thinks now, maybe second guessing himself, that had he pushed harder earlier he might have more than 21 caps.
“There is ambition to stay playing the game well into my 30s,” he says. “I feel like I only got started. I’ve been around since 2011 but I only really kicked on when I was 28.
“I look back and say ‘gee if only I was a bit more gutsy, if I had a bit more confidence I could have conducted myself better and pushed on to the senior team earlier’. When I was 28 I just got this confidence in my ability.
“Physically I felt very good. I had put all this illness behind me. In 2016 I was probably two years out, two years healthy and I adopted a certain technique in my scrummaging that I stuck with.
“I was mixing and matching before that but I just stuck with this and it worked out. If you feel fit and you feel strong you are going to be totally confident mentally. You don’t have to worry about your body. You just worry about the task at hand. When I feel like that I feel it’s the best place to be.”
Don’t ask him about new Ireland coach Andy Farrell. Don’t ask about the 2020 Six Nations. He’s ambitious sure. Like the rest. Keynan Knox, the South African born and bred tighthead signed straight out of school in 2017 is pushing. How scary is that, in prop years a challenge from the crib. Then there’s Europe, Ospreys and Swansea today.
Focus too far ahead and you lose sight of what’s in front of you and what you need to hold will fall through your fingers he says. The World Cup was “a little bubble we were all in” and “was a goal and a real privilege”.
But Ryan keeps it real because his is a life of having to be. And it’s not always the rugby, not even the colitis or the 2020 Six Nations.
Felix is waiting.