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'I was with Munster for 13 years and my appreciation of what I had there has gone through the roof'

Donnacha Ryan is preparing to face his former club in Sunday’s Champions Cup showdown, but the 34-year-old has gained a fresh perspective since moving to France.

Updated Apr 20th 2018, 9:30 PM

AS DONNACHA RYAN takes the call from his Parisian residence, the EPCR’s media manager proceeds, as is the norm, to list the player’s credentials and accolades, but in this case, no introduction is required, nor is there any need for further background on the piquant subplot to Sunday’s Champions Cup semi-final.

Donnacha Ryan celebrates after the game Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Ryan, once of Munster, now of Racing 92, comes up against his erstwhile team and team-mates in the heat — literally and metaphorically — of Bordeaux, a place in the Champions Cup final at stake.

It will be Ryan’s fourth European semi-final, but this one is different to everything that has gone before, not only because he won’t be wearing red, but the 34-year-old’s life has changed considerably since his emotive departure from his home province last summer.

The second row played a starring role when Racing defeated Munster at the U Arena during the pool stages in January, a significant afternoon for the Tipperary native who had endured frustration in his first couple of months in France.

A neck hernia injury meant he missed a return to Thomond Park in October and it wasn’t until December, and a Top 14 clash with Stade Francais, when we saw him belatedly line out for his new employers.

The frustration of injury was exasperated by the need to settle into new surrounds almost instantly, and the difficulties associated with such a move, including picking up the language, made the transition a little bumpier than might have been the case.

“At the start, it was very frustrating trying to pay bills, get a new phone number sorted, get accommodation sorted,” he explains.

“The club were very helpful and we’re lucky the staff are very good. I had to have an operation at the beginning and it was a pretty invasive procedure and trying to have a chat with doctors in French wasn’t easy.

“At the beginning, it was very frustrating as you’re trying to get your point across and trying to help…you just want to make a good impression, especially with all the big names that are at the club here.

“I wanted to prove Irish players are very hard working and can perform at a high level. That’s what I want to do.”

Ryan had to bide his time, but when he did eventually get his opportunity for Les Ciel et Blanc, he made up for that lost time, epitomised by his performance against Munster in which he was colossal and did more than most to deny Johann van Graan side’s victory.

“It was very strange, very strange,” he admits, recalling that game. “You play alongside them [Munster players], you know how hard they work and how they back each other up and you’re on the opposite side.

“When I did get the chance it was nice to be able to come in and help the team. It has been going very well.”

Donnacha Ryan Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Both on and off the field, it seems.

Now settled into Parisian life with his family and getting to grips with the French language, Ryan is at home here and, at 34, is making the most of every opportunity with a fresh perspective.

Away from Munster, away from the limelight, the anonymity of a serene lifestyle on the banks of the Seine where rugby is not the be-all and end-all.

“It’s just an interesting lifestyle outside of rugby,” he explains. “It’s a different lifestyle, rugby isn’t as big in the north of France as it is in the south or in Ireland.

“I’ve made a lot of sacrifices to play for Ireland and Munster but the important thing for me was to face a new challenge and to have a different perspective on life. I was with Munster for 13 years and having moved over here my appreciation of what I had there has gone through the roof.

“Munster over here is so well respected and it’s great to have a look at it from this lens — but I’m really enjoying it, rugby is only one part of my life and it’s been great to explore the avenues outside of it a well. You want to play for Ireland forever but it has to end some time.

“It’s been great. My knowledge and appreciation of rugby and for people and cultures has definitely grown since I’ve been over here.”

Little surprise all is going well, then.

Ryan holds no regrets or bitterness over the way his 13-year career with Munster ended, because it was ultimately his decision to leave and head for pastures new in France, and so embarking on this next chapter and fresh start was seen as an exciting opportunity rather than his only option when the IRFU didn’t offer him a central contract.

He got back to Ireland during the Six Nations, taking in the home game against Italy at the Aviva Stadium, and there was a brilliant picture of Ryan watching the Grand Slam decider against England on the big screen at the U Arena shortly after Racing’s 28-22 win over Stade Francais. As surreal as it must have been.

Racing 92’s Donnacha Ryan Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“It was funny,” he laughs. “To give you the background to the story, I was on the bench that weekend and came on at half-time and Racing had a really good idea to try and keep everyone in the stadium and stuff. They put the game on the big screen and I was lucky enough to be pulled over by the drug testers and I was actually waiting to be drug tested at the time so could watch the match. Why not watch it out on the pitch with everyone.

“It was great, great watching it, jeez they were awesome. To hammer England at Twickenham.”

You’d love to be out there, though?

“You’d always love to be playing for Ireland but obviously it has to end sometime but as a supporter, and knowing how hard all the lads worked, it was great watching them and I was delighted to win a Grand Slam. I texted a lot of the players and coaching staff to congratulate them as it was a massive goal of theirs over the last number of years.”

Ryan has moved on, and so to Sunday’s semi-final at the Stade Chaban-Delmas, the seventh European meeting between the two sides and only Racing’s second last four appearance after their 19-16 defeat of Leicester Tigers at this penultimate stage in 2016.

A dream scenario for the Munchin’s man, or is it, in fact, the worst-case scenario?

“I’m just more happy to be in a semi-final than anything else really,” he replies. “They’re very hard to get to and we’re delighted to get the win in Clermont [in the quarter-final].

“We’ve played Munster twice already this season so the lads are well aware of what we’re up against and the big threats they have. We need to be at our best at the weekend and manage the game well.”

Ryan knows Munster as well as anyone, he knows their systems and set-piece inside out, but Billy Holland this week admitted it would be foolish for the province to try and double-bluff their former team-mate.

Donnacha Ryan leaves the field after the game Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I don’t think it’s an advantage at all,” Ryan says of his presence in the Racing line out.

“You can’t focus on things and box tick everything, focus on yourselves and get everything rather than focusing on what certain players are going to do. You just have to react on the day.

“It’s going to be a very, very hot day on Sunday. It’ll be tight enough to start but I imagine it will become loose in the second half, it will be a fast running game anyway. There’s a task, a job to do for us.”

Either way, Ryan is certain to play a central role — and he just wants to go out and enjoy it. Joie de vivre.

“It’s a different approach for me,” he adds. “I’m 34 years of age, make the most of my rugby career, just enjoy it and enjoy the experience of a semi-final. Don’t get caught up in the emotion of it or the pressures in your head.”

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