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Dublin: 0°C Friday 16 April 2021

Ireland-England clash carries sweet memories for exile Donnacha Ryan

The Tipperary man is thriving in Paris and feeling fresh as he aims to return for the business end of the season.

PERHAPS THE MOST bittersweet image to arise out of Ireland’s Grand Slam-sealing win over England last year, was the glimpse of the exile.

While Ireland were racking up a terrific twelfth straight win on a freezing day in Twickenham, Donnacha Ryan – a man who helped start the winning streak a year earlier – looked in pensive mood watching the game unfold in the comfort of Racing 92′s U Arena and its gigantic screen.

A picture can say a thousand words, but a single snapshot doesn’t always give the full story.

This was not a man wondering what might have been if he had stuck around in Ireland. It was a happy occasion, albeit after tiring week.

“I hadn’t trained all that week until the Friday, because my daughter (Remi) was born on the Tuesday. I rocked up to training and they said, ‘we’ll start you tomorrow’.

“I was, like, ‘what?’ I had slept in the chair in the hospital all week.”

A touch of sense prevailed and Ryan was asked to play just 40 minutes of a fiery Paris derby against Stade Francais. 

“I think it was the first time we were losing at half-time (in the new stadium). I was pretty tired. I actually had three coffees to wake myself up.

It was fine anyway, we won the game, but I was drug-tested afterwards. I was having a beer on the sideline – to get hydrated – and the French game was on later that evening, so they organised a fête and played the England-Ireland game on the big screen.

“So I whipped out a chair to watch it. It was class. The only better view you could have was being at the game, or on the pitch. The third best view was where I was,” says the lock, in Dublin to launch Bord Bia’s chicken, make it your way campaign.

A cold beer in the week of his daughter’s birth, a good seat to watch Ireland win in Twickenham and the bonus of a win over Stade. The memory is only sweet for Ryan.

The Tipperary man has been sidelined for most of the past two months with a knee injury, he pushed his rehab after keyhole surgery a touch too far and so missed his target return date of the Champions Cup pool visit to Ulster. The postponement has him pencilled in to play Toulouse in two weeks’ time – a precursor to the European quarter-final the teams will play out in late March.

Donnacha Ryan Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I’ve never been as fresh,” he says, thankful that most of his body has been out of the firing line for a stretch. In a way it’s a nice change considering he played 13 straight games for le Ciel et Bleus at the start of the season.

While his match workload is diminished of late, the linguistic challenge of three French classes a week means there’s little chance of him resting on his laurels.

I didn’t do French at School. I’ve dropped a few clangers. I don’t know if this table is feminine or masculine…”

He has adapted alright. On a flying visit to Dublin, he has to check himself to stop any bon mots from escaping his mouth in a Nenagh accent. The toughest test comes of course when fatigue is in the mix.

“What’s difficult is when you’re on the pitch and you’re tired and you’re trying to find the word. You find yourself saying to yourself: ‘why can’t you read my mind!’”

In one sense, he is on a similar wave-length to a star-studded dressing room in Paris. But on top of language barriers and a cultural melting pot there are also generational gaps that any 35-year-old might take time to get his head around.

He is a core component to a powerhouse of European rugby, but he learned long ago to keep big-game pressure in perspective.

“I enjoyed my last year in Munster and Ireland, I really did,” says Ryan,  “the result for me at the end of a game, I could deal with it an awful lot better than I could when I was younger.

Donnacha Ryan with Courtney Lawes Ryan challenges Lawes for a line-out in 2017. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I remember we lost the (2012) Heineken Cup quarter-final against Ulster and I didn’t really want to get out of bed until the Wednesday.  Didn’t want to show my face.

“It was silly, like, but it meant so much to you. Whereas now, there are bigger things out there. You cope with it so much better.”

That first match in his long opening run of games this season helped offer a reminder that sport can be fun too.

“We started in the end of July (after season ended in June) and we went on tour in Tbilisi. Our first game was against Brazil. D’you know something It was fantastic. Because most of the players are amateur and they’re just so happy to have the challenge of playing you.

“I thought it was funny because they’re helping you off the ground, and you end up giving them tips during the game.

“It’s such a slow pace at that level, so you’re kind of saying: ‘let’s keep the game going’”.

Donnacha Ryan Donnacha Ryan at the launch of the Bord Bia Chicken, Make It Your Way campaign. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It was a nice change of pace, but that sort of Corinthian spirit wasn’t how Ryan made his name, and it was more of the grizzled hard-edge warrior on show when he last appeared in green and helped to halt England’s bid for a second Grand Slam under Eddie Jones.

He doesn’t dwell on whether, under other circumstances or in an ideal world, he would be in the mix for a start this weekend or vying with Quinn Roux for a replacement role. He  wishes his former team-mates well and he will cheer them on from any distance.

He is loving life in Paris, but there’s no denying a part of him missing home.

“I miss home in the sense that the craic with the lads is just completely different.
13 years in Munster, I appreciate it more now since I’ve been over there.

“A group of players and some of the best people on the planet who only have your best interest at heart.”


Join us to preview the Six Nations with Simon Zebo, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey on Thursday @7pm in Liberty Hall Theatre Dublin.

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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