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Irish-influenced New York to make mark on Major League Rugby in 2019

Paddy Ryan is one of a big contingent of Irish players involved in the club’s first season.

WHILE MANY OF their friends were back home indulging in the joys of Christmas, a group of Irishmen had their heads down in New York, training hard over the festive period.

2019 is a huge year for rugby in the Big Apple, with the new Rugby United New York [RUNY] club entering Major League Rugby [MLR] after playing a series of exhibition games in 2018. 

Paddy Ryan Paddy Ryan is among RUNY's new signings. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Tipperary man James Kennedy is the co-founder and president of RUNY, while the playing squad includes several Ireland natives.

Dylan Fawsitt, Ross Deacon, Marcus Walsh and Dave Gannon have been part of the club since it was initially formed – albeit they spent last year’s inaugural MLR campaign out on loan – and they’ve been joined by a new crop of Irishmen in the off-season.

Ex-Leinster out-half Cathal Marsh is a marquee signing, while former Ireland U20 hooker Sean McNulty, Shannon back Will Leonard, Dolphin RFC prop James Rochford and ex-Newcastle tighthead Paddy Ryan have also signed on.

Ryan, who has played for the US four times, is living in Harlem with Marsh, meaning “we go through some dodgy areas” on their commute to training in Coney Island, but he’s enjoying the experience of being part of the Irish crop.

“It’s great,” says Ryan. “I didn’t know Marshy before coming here but he’s a great guy and there’s just so many of us Irish here. It’s cool that way, it’s easy to get along and if you’re ever stuck, the lads will sort you out.

“There’s a few lads from home and even guys I played with in England getting onto me and asking about the league, seeing how the money is, how it’s going to go. I think it will grow massively.”

Indeed, MLR has already grown since last year, expanding from seven teams to nine for 2019 – Toronto Arrows are the other new team – and from an eight-game regular season to 16 matches for each club before the play-offs.

New York kick off their campaign against San Diego Legion – who have signed former Wallabies prop Paddy Ryan – on 27 January and with a coaching team including ex-USA boss Mike Tolkin and scrummaging specialist Kees Lensing, they have lofty ambitions.

Excitingly, nine of RUNY’s games this year will be shown on SNY, a New York sports TV channel that also screens the New York Mets and New York Jets. 

“We know where we want to get to and already it is that we want to win it,” says Ryan. “I think we have the squad to win when everyone gets in. But the league itself is getting bigger and there’s some big names signing around the place.

Paddy Ryan Ryan in Munster A colours in 2013. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“The league is going to expand again next year, so it’s about getting the quality players in.”

Having already featured for the US – his mother is American and he was born in Chicago – Ryan’s move to New York wasn’t a major surprise.

He played with Walsh and Deacon in Austin last season, although a foot injury meant Ryan’s contribution was frustratingly limited, while his involvement with the US also meant getting to know Fawsitt

There were many good words put in and New York got in touch to sign Ryan on a two-year deal, with the second year of that contract optional.

Ryan comes from excellent rugby prop stock, with his older brothers, Timmy and Dave, having preceded him as professionals. 

32-year-old Dave is still an important player for Top 14 outfit Agen, while 34-year-old Timmy now coaches in Highfield having enjoyed a career that saw him play for Munster and Toulon, among others.

Paddy played a couple of games with Timmy’s Highfield last year as he returned from his foot injury and says Dave has been important to his career.

“Dave was always on my case, he pushed me. I have to give him a lot of credit. Timmy left quite early when I was still young so Dave pushed me on a lot.”

Paddy, who is close friends with Munster prop James Cronin, had hopes of playing for his home province at professional level but never quite managed to get his shot.

Cathal Marsh Cathal Marsh will be a key man for RUNY. Source: Mike Sheehan/INPHO

He played for Munster’s A team but ended up looking outside Ireland for his chance to be a pro – following Dave’s lead in heading to Italy for an opportunity with Viadana. 

“Dave put me in the limelight a bit more when he got me that gig in Viadana,” says Ryan.

“I was playing with Munster at A level but I felt I had to take that opportunity when it came. He was in Zebre and got me that gig in Viadana, which was cool. From there, I started picking up contracts.”

After just six weeks in Viadana, Ryan was signed by English Championship club London Welsh, when former England international Jamie Noon became his agent and helped him to secure a move to French Fédérale 1 side Libourne the following season.

“The loosehead in Libourne was an ex-Stade Français prop and he taught me a lot. Our head coach used to play tighthead for Toulon so he was massive into his scrummaging too. It was tough rugby, we had a couple of filthy guys in the second row!”

From Libourne, Ryan packed his bags again and headed for Newcastle, where he spent two seasons and made 12 appearances in the Premiership, Challenge Cup and Anglo-Welsh Cup.

“It was a huge step up, to be honest,” says Ryan. The Prem was big and I probably could have taken my opportunity a little better when I got it. If I’d stayed injury-free there, I feel I could have got another contract and pushed on. 

“It’s a bit like Munster, they’re producing a lot of young talent and they’ve a really good system.”

Through Ryan’s nomadic years, there have been occasional pangs of wondering ‘what might have been’ with regards to Munster. 

Paddy-IG-for-Posting Source: Rugby United New York

“At times, I was a bit frustrated for leaving but I’ve had a hell of an experience and I’ve learned a lot from travelling around the world. I had a lot of injuries at home so I have to take it a bit on myself.”

He’s also become an international rugby player since departing for Viadana in 2014, with the first contact from the US having come through Todd Cleaver when they were both playing for Newcastle.

Ryan says he was initially “humming and hawing about it” but he ended up making his debut for the Eagles against his native Ireland in New Jersey in June 2017.

“I was actually over in America for Timmy’s stag; we were in Vegas and I got a phone call asking me if I’d come into camp,” says Ryan with a laugh.

“I’d just come back from an injury and I was out of contract with Newcastle. It was Quilly [fellow Cork man John Quill] who rang me. 

“It was cool to play against Ireland for my first cap, a great experience. I would have played with Scans [Niall Scannell] and Rory [Scannell] in Dolphin so it was good to play against them.”

Ryan also featured in Tests against Canada, Georgia and Germany in 2017, although his injury issues last year meant he has not added to his tally of four caps since. 

But in a big year for New York and US rugby, Ryan is keen for 2019 to be a different story.

“I’ve had some ups and downs, a lot of injuries, but hopefully this next year will be one where I can stay healthy and hopefully make the World Cup squad.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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