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'I just came over to France for a different experience and a new challenge'

The Racing man will be out to deny Leinster’s bid for a fourth Champions Cup title tomorrow.

Murray Kinsella reports from San Mamés, Bilbao

AT ONE STAGE during the press conference, as Racing 92 coach Laurent Travers lauds the Irish second row’s impact on the French club in gushing terms, Donnacha Ryan actually blushes.

The Tipperary man has never been comfortable with being the centre of attention but this season has brought him firmly into the limelight.

Donnacha Ryan Ryan at Racing's captain's run in Bilbao today. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With Ryan playing against Munster, his former province, twice this season and now before the Champions Cup final against Leinster tomorrow [KO 4.45pm, BT Sport/Sky Sports], he has been an understandable focal point.

His shyness about the hype is endearing, with Ryan admitting that this season has been a bit odd.

“It’s been different, I wouldn’t like that level of scrutiny,” says the 34-year-old. “I just really try to focus on performance, that’s all I can do.

“It’s great that Irish people are following Irish players in France and it’s great for me living in France. I’m learning the language… slowly.”

Ryan’s first season with Racing has been a major success and his second row partnership with Fijian superstar Leone Nakarawa is one of the French club’s key strengths ahead of the clash with Leinster tomorrow.

Asked what he feels he has been able to bring to the party at Racing, Ryan jokes “definitely my footballing skills, my offloading skills” before pointing to the less glamorous parts of his job.

“No, predominantly it’s tackling, rucking and mauling, not very flash stuff. I love the analysis and I know this guy beside me [Travers] does as well.

“I love to get challenged every day so I’m coming into work, skipping going in every day. I leave Leone to do the offloading!”

Ryan has enjoyed seeing that “there’s always a different way to do things” with his move to France, particularly in the lineout where he has been working closely with forwards coach Travers and Racing’s array of set-piece specialists.

Donnacha Ryan Ryan never enjoys being in the limelight. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Every day is a school day, and you understand that there are so many more cultures in the group than before, it’s so unique.”

That Ryan finds himself in a European final in his first season with Racing strongly justifies the switch from Munster, although he points out that he didn’t move solely for trophies.

Indeed, it was the change of scenery and an exciting new adventure that he craved most of all.

“I just came over to France for a different experience and a new challenge,” says Ryan. “When you get older in any career, a change gives you a big impetus. I just want to prove myself to the players and the coaches here; that’s given me an extra kick when needed.

“Every time I come to training, I work hard and try to make other players look better on pitch.

“The massive effort we put in was reflected in our wins over Clermont and Munster and I’m thrilled to bits to be in a final. Everyone’s looking forward to it and it’s going to be a great experience.”

The hope for Ryan is that it’s a winning experience too, but he understands the quality of the opposition that awaits tomorrow.

Leinster have been consistently impressive on their march to the final, with their blend of experienced heads and athletic young guns producing a string of superb performances.

Chief among those younger stars has been 21-year-old James Ryan, who will provide explosive competition for Racing from the second row.

Racing 92’s Donnacha Ryan with Munster fans Ryan played against Munster twice this season. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“James has been incredible actually,” says Racing lock Ryan. “I had the opportunity to play against him in a development game two years ago. He’s had an incredible season.

“I was getting feedback from the Munster lads during the Six Nations and his GPS scores were incredible, he has such a high work-rate.

“He’s playing alongside the most successful Irish second row. Devin [Toner] has done everything and the Leinster lineout has done very well this year.

“I also played alongside Leo [Cullen] and I know he’s very diligent and it’s important how we react to those things on the pitch and how we can close them down the best we can.

“Knowing Leinster and way Stuart Lancaster likes to train them, they will play a high-tempo game and that’s the kind of game we play as well. It makes for an interesting clash, the lineout will be a game of chess and some days you’re able to pinch one or two, others you can’t.”

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Leinster name strong team for Saturday’s British and Irish Cup final

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Murray Kinsella

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