'I learned in Munster and Toulon that it's all about attitude and culture'
Former professional prop Tim Ryan has overseen Highfield RFC’s rise in the AIL in recent years.

ON THURSDAY EVENING, Tim Ryan was out for a walk after another day of working from home when his phone pinged.

‘AIL cancelled.’

Just like that, out of the blue, the Highfield RFC head coach had to face up to his side’s season being over with just four fixtures remaining.

The Cork club sit nine points clear of Old Wesley at the top of Division 1B of the All-Ireland League and had high hopes of being promoted into 1A, bringing them back to the top table for the first time in 30 years.

Instead, Highfield and the rest of the AIL clubs were caught off guard by the IRFU’s announcement that the already-postponed season has now been cancelled altogether. No one will be relegated and no one will be promoted.

timmy-ryan-with-peter-arigho Ken Sutton / INPHO Highfield head coach/player Tim Ryan. Ken Sutton / INPHO / INPHO

Highfield have been on a remarkable rise in recent seasons under ex-Munster and Toulon prop Ryan, who has also been playing along the way too. They won Division 2C in 2015 and then 2B a year later. Back-to-back second-placed finishes in 2A followed before Highfield earned their spot in 1B last season.

They’ve taken the latest step up with impressive comfort and, with healthy lead and only four games left, were favoured to go up.

35-year-old Ryan and his players are understandably frustrated, though he stresses that public health is the only thing that matters right now.

“The postponement had to happen for the good of society and for player welfare,” says Ryan. “What’s most important is that everyone stays safe. Social distancing is massive and a bunch of lads hitting into each other isn’t sticking to that, so we need to take it all in context.

“It’s about saving lives and making sure the healthcare system can deal with it this issue. That’s the important thing, not leagues and titles.”

But there is real disappointment for Highfield and others that the 2019/20 AIL season won’t be completed at all.

In 1A, Cork Con have been in sensational form with 14 wins from 14. Barnhall are six points clear in Division 2A, with Cashel and Queen’s University chasing, while Malahide lead 2B with a four-point gap to Wanderers, and Skerries top 2C with a three-point advantage over Enniscorthy.

Obviously, there are clubs who will benefit from the lack of relegation. Ballina are on -1 points at the bottom of Division 2B but will be staying up.

Ryan feels that the IRFU could have either opted for a ‘one up, one down’ approach with so many games already played, or at least played the remaining fixtures before the start of the 2020/21 season, when the Covid-19 crisis will hopefully have passed or regressed. 

“We look at it this way – if you play a game any Saturday and that game goes until the 60th minute but then has to be called off for the weather or whatever, the result at that point in the game stands,” explains Ryan.

joe-schmidt-presents-the-ail-div2a-rising-star-award-to-dave-oconnell-highfield-rfc Morgan Treacy / INPHO Highfield's Dave O'Connell won the Division 2A Rising Star Award last season. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“So basically you have to get to 75% of the game being played for the result to stand.

“We’re at 78% of the league played now. How does that relate to just cancelling the whole league?

“We also have six months until next season’s AIL starts to play four matches to finish this season. It’s well doable.

“Even if we cancelled the Charity Cup, Munster Senior Cup, things that aren’t even started, and finished this season’s AIL by mid-September. So say we got back to normality by July, lads would have three or four weeks of training before playing those games from the middle of August for four weeks, then a week off and into next season’s AIL in October. That’s how we looked at it.”

The IRFU’s director of rugby development, Colin McEntee, stressed that the decision had “not been made lightly” and that “all options were discussed and the IRFU is satisfied it has arrived at the only equitable solution.”

It’s understood the IRFU was keen for all clubs to be able to plan ahead for the 2020/21 with clarity, particularly given that there are financial challenges across the game now. The union is also believed to have been keen to avoid making the start of next season too congested and demanding for amateur players.

Ryan says that the “biggest issue” was that Highfield and other clubs weren’t even consulted, instead being caught by surprise on Thursday evening when the IRFU made the announcement.

Despite the frustration, Ryan says Highfield and others “just have to get on with it.”

The prospect of another promotion is gone, but the Cork club remain on an impressive journey under Ryan. He came through the youth ranks of Highfield himself, winning All-Ireland and Munster trophies along the way before his professional career took off.

Ryan played for Munster during their Heineken Cup-winning period without breaking into the first-choice team but his performance against the All Blacks in Thomond Park in 2008 won him many admirers and a move to Top 14 club Toulon the following season.

From there, he had spells with Newcastle in the Premiership, Cavalieri in Italy, the Dragons in the Pro14, and Coventry in England’s National League One before returning to his home club as player/coach.

tim-ryan Billy Stickland / INPHO Tim Ryan in action for Munster against the All Blacks in 2008. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“I learned from being in clubs like Munster, Toulon, Cork Con and all these places that it’s all about attitude and culture,” says Ryan, whose two younger brothers, Dave and Paddy, play professional rugby.

A core part of setting Highfield’s culture was the goal of being among the best in the country. Ryan and co. romped to a 2C title success in 2014/15 but held themselves to higher standards. If they conceded 20 points while scoring plenty of tries in a win, the focus would be on those defensive failings and what a 1A club might have done.

Highfield began concentrating less on results and more on how they trained and performed.

While having that intense mindset in their rugby, Ryan stresses that the Woodleigh Park-based club have also focused on having good craic.

“We’re not professionals. You generally play rugby for two reasons – to make a living or for the social side. The lads enjoy a pint with each other on a Saturday, they hang around with each other, they’re friends. That’s a huge thing for us.”

Ryan counts himself lucky to have a senior squad of 40 players training and playing with the 1sts and 2nds every week, the vast majority of them having come through the Highfield ranks. It’s something the club takes pride in, even if Ryan underlines that recruiting players is part of the reality of 1B and 1A rugby.

Highfield have been a prolific attacking force under Ryan, with his focus from the start having been on dominating possession and territory. A disinterest in his team taking penalty kicks at goal underlines that approach.

“I looked at the NFL and if you get down into the opposition 20, so the red zone, and the defence stop you for a field goal, they consider that a win for the defence,” says Ryan, who works as a financial advisor.

“So if we kick three points, we consider that a win for the defence. We give up defence and likely territory because they’ll usually boot it deep into your half from the restart and you have to kick out and they get a chance to attack.

“The way we look at it, you go into the corner you either score five or seven points, or even if they turn you over and kick out, you go again. It’s more possession and territory in their half of the field. That’s how we want to play.”

84301999_2527005920913290_5063038410667589632_n Highfield's Chris Bannon and club captain, Fintan O’Sullivan, were on the Ireland Clubs squad this year.

Ryan name-checks Laurie Fisher and Tony McGahan as coaches he learned from in his playing days, while also highlighting Declan Kidney’s man management style.

“Declan was good at getting into the psyche of people and knowing what made them tick. That’s important and over the six years I think I’m getting a bit better at that.

“My first year back here, I was probably all fire and brimstone because as a player I liked when I was f’ed out of it and reacted well. But that makes other lads go into their shell. Some lads don’t need a kick up the hole, they need an arm around the shoulder.”

While Highfield’s rise is on hold for now, Ryan takes pride in the fact that players similar to himself, Munster prop James Cronin, his brothers, and many others will no longer have to leave their home club to play at higher levels of the AIL.

“We’d like to get to 1A and compete there but we needed to get our stuff together on and off the pitch five or six years ago,” says Ryan. “That’s happened and we’ve been developing but we’re still growing.

“We’re a long way off the likes of Cork Con who have been doing it for years but we can slowly get there and be sustainable.”

- This article was updated at 9.47am on 23 March to correct typos in the sub-heading.  

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