By Katie Field, Rugby World Writer
I DOUBT that many international rugby players have learned about the game with the help of a Subbuteo football set, but Donnacha Ryan has that unusual claim to fame. When he was an athletic 17-year-old he was spotted by Pat Whelan, a stalwart from the Nenagh Ormond rugby club, and Whelan set about converting Ryan from a hurler, golfer and swimmer into a rugby player.
“I played everything but rugby back then,” says Ryan. “Pat just saw something in me and then gave me a crash course in rugby, to try to get me into the Munster U18 team. He taught me the theories of playing rugby using Subbuteo men! He made me learn all the laws and if I conceded a penalty I could tell the referee exactly how the law was worded! I had no idea about rugby to start with – I even wore a Manchester United shirt to a Munster Youth trial!
“Pat was a selectors’ advisor and someone told me years later that he told the Munster Youth guys that if they dropped me from the squad he would leave. He saw the potential in me. I literally wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”
Ryan’s parents backed his decision to switch sports, and it’s thanks to his dad’s ability to drive a little faster than the laws of the land allow that he was taken into the Munster fold. “We still argue about whose fault it was, but I missed the bus to take me to the Munster Youth trial,” Ryan laughs. “We were at Mass on a Sunday morning and I had to catch the bus at 8.30 to get to the trial, which started in Cork at 11.30. My dad said he would drive me instead, but I said, ‘Forget it, I won’t get in the team anyway – I don’t even know the rules. I will go back to hurling’.
“I wouldn’t change my mind until finally, at about ten past ten my dad said, ‘I’m going to Cork whether you’re going to come or not’, so we went. It should be about a two-hour trip but my dad made it there by 11.25! Pat says that was the defining day, when he knew I wanted to be a rugby player.”
The transition from hurling to rugby was far from easy. “Hurling is a game of evasion, trying to avoid contact, so I wasn’t the best tackler when I took up rugby,” Ryan says. “I was always first to the breakdown but I was giving away so many penalties when I got there.
“I would put in so much work and then play badly and I wasn’t too pleasant to hang around with then, because I put a lot of pressure on myself. My parents and three sisters had to put up with a lot of mood swings.”
When he left school, Ryan decided to give rugby a go until he was 24. It’s a good job he did, because the lock and sometime back-row will pass 100 appearances for Munster this season and has more than a dozen Ireland caps, despite having to play second fiddle to Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan. The 28-year-old has to fight for every opportunity to play at provincial and Test level, but says: “I have the job of trying to change people’s perceptions. There are guys who have cemented their places through years of experience and done all the hard graft, but your game is constantly evolving. You have got to be the one to push that envelope and why shouldn’t you be able to pass like an outside back? That’s the focus any ambitious player should have.”
He fulfilled a dream by playing at last year’s World Cup and although he didn’t get selected for the quarter-final, he did start two matches. “I really didn’t want to be a passenger out there. I didn’t really acknowledge what I achieved at the World Cup until I came home. At that time, the year before, I was doing rehab from shoulder surgery and couldn’t even scratch my nose!”
Ryan has a good brain and likes to use it. He has a degree in commerce and Irish, having switched from commerce and German because he didn’t want to go to Germany for a year’s placement. Now he is studying to be a financial advisor and taking an entrepreneurial course along with eight of his Munster colleagues, including Doug Howlett, Mick O’Driscoll and Lifeimi Mafi.
“It engages your brain and you can talk about something other than rugby and see guys’ creativity outside rugby, so I’m really learning more about my team-mates.”
And rugby fans will learn a lot more about him if Ryan keeps taking his game onwards and upwards in the coming years.