Deal­ing with life’s slings and ar­rows

John Ryan has shrugged off ad­ver­sity be­fore but Mun­ster omis­sion could hurt his Ire­land chances

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - RUGBY - BREN­DAN FAN­NING

AN old prop for­ward we know and love was ex­plain­ing re­cently the rea­sons why two tech­ni­cally com­pe­tent tight­heads could, in the same af­ter­noon, have wildly dif­fer­ing for­tunes against the same op­po­nent. Typ­i­cally the first bloke gets called ashore, and then his re­place­ment brings sta­bil­ity where pre­vi­ously there was chaos. And ev­ery­one im­me­di­ately jumps to ca­reer-defin­ing con­clu­sions about the three men in­volved. “Some­times a fella you’re up against just doesn’t suit you,” the old prop said. “It can be as sim­ple and as com­pli­cated as that.”

Lo and behold last week­end, a mat­ter of days af­ter he had de­liv­ered this anal­y­sis, Mun­ster tight­head John Ryan gets dragged off the Lans­downe Road pitch af­ter just 44 min­utes against Le­in­ster. True, it was only his sec­ond start af­ter three runs off the bench, but in a game where Mun­ster were by a dis­tance sec­ond best you ex­pected a man of his stature to be left longer in the fight. Per­haps there were other scraps he was los­ing.

“Thought it was a bit soon,” Ryan con­cedes. “You don’t want to be taken off that early — 50 min­utes is the tar­get, isn’t it, for a prop? He (Rassie Eras­mus) was just chang­ing things up. He changed an­other two or three about five min­utes later. I just think we had to change some­thing.”

Well, Eras­mus has gone and changed a bit more, and now Ryan finds him­self on the bench for to­day’s game in Stade Pierre-Fabre. Af­ter eight starts in a row in Europe last sea­son, it’s a slap in the chops.

What will worry the tight­head now is that Joe Sch­midt might be stand­ing nearby with a wet fish in his hands, ready to land an­other blow. With a view to the Guin­ness in­ter­na­tional series next month, these Euro­pean games are the tools play­ers use to nail down their places.

Which is not easy if you’re not start­ing. So the least Ryan needs to­day is to get on early enough and make a pos­i­tive im­pact.

The lat­ter would in­volve not miss­ing any tack­les — like the one on Rory O’Lough­lin last week — or get­ting bumped on a carry by a 10, as Johnny Sex­ton did to him. Mean­time, the stuff he can’t con­trol is what Fin­lay Beal­ham is do­ing for Con­nacht. Chal­leng­ing times then. But it’s not as if this is new ter­ri­tory.

In his early days, on the satel­lite that is Mun­ster’s sub-academy, John Ryan was given the heaveho back to the real world. And much later, hav­ing restarted his ca­reer, he had to cope with a de­bil­i­tat­ing ill­ness which would be a scourge no mat­ter what your line of busi­ness, but an un­cen­sored night­mare if you’re a prop for­ward in pro­fes­sional rugby. He won both bat­tles.

First the knock­back. The sub-academy is not quite a twi­light zone but it’s a dif­fi­cult space to in­habit: you’re ex­pected to live the life that might end up with a place in the academy proper, but just as eas­ily you might get told to move along. And, as a 20-year-old, he was. So did he think that ship had sailed?

“I did, I did, be­cause I was in col­lege and I was up ev­ery morn­ing at 6.30 . . . 7.0 in the gym. The next thing, I was left go. I’m think­ing, ‘what the hell will I do now?’ This was at the height of the re­ces­sion, like. I had to go out and get my own job. Every­thing was suf­fer­ing be­cause I was work­ing and I was train­ing, so I couldn’t really keep it all go­ing. Then I was left go. I was, ‘Right, we’ll go away now and have the crack in col­lege. We’ ll go out and go drink­ing like all the other lads do.’ And I did that for a while. Then I went work­ing and really train­ing hard. I was balanc­ing every­thing to­gether.”

The work was noc­tur­nal, on the door of a night­club in Cork city. He loved it. And he lived the stu­dent life as well, with so­cial stuff high on his agenda. He sum­mered well. If there was a gig, he went to it; if lads were head­ing off some­where, he was up for that too. In­ter­est­ingly, though, the S&C boys in UCC took him aside and told him he had real po­ten­tial, if he was pre­pared to put in the work.

“I just came back in pretty much atro­cious shape and they just said to me, ‘You’re go­ing to be a pro.’ And I just said, ‘Je­sus, are you se­ri­ous? This guy?’ I lost about 12kg in five weeks. It was a pretty big trans­for­ma­tion.”

Early in the new AIL sea­son he had one of those for­tu­nate ex­pe­ri­ences where scouts to go watch a par­tic­u­lar player and come away im­pressed by his op­po­nent. So UCC v UL Bohs, Ryan v Dave Kil­coyne, and the next thing there’s an of­fer to get back in the sys­tem.

He was about six months into that Mun­ster ca­reer, and think­ing about spe­cial­is­ing as a tight­head in­stead of swap­ping over and back, when dis­as­ter struck in the shape of col­i­tis.

“I was scrum­mag­ing very well, I felt; I was giv­ing it to Killer and (James) Cronin; I felt I was really com­pet­ing. And then I got sick and I lost eight/nine ki­los. And then I was told you’re not big enough or pow­er­ful enough to be a tight­head, so you’re go­ing loose­head. I played a lot of loose­head. It was just, I sup­pose you can’t say it . . . well, a kick in the balls really. A pain in the ass. But look, it’s all be­hind me now and not an is­sue.”

Ryan turned 29 in Au­gust. A good age for a prop, but you won­der if the early years spent cover­ing both sides of the scrum didn’t de­lay him nail­ing down the tight­head side.

“I be­lieve so, yeah. I think that’s a thing of the past. I’m tight­head now and that’s it. There is no more go­ing back to loose­head. It’s just too hard to do. When I came in, I was play­ing tight­head at club level and do­ing a de­cent job but wasn’t at the level needed so I played loose, tight, loose. There were in­juries af­ter that and I’d slot in. I was well able but then maybe time took its toll and it was harder to do that swap.

“So yeah, I do think I maybe suf­fered a bit play­ing both sides, fall­ing be­tween two stools. You need to fo­cus on one, really. They are com­pletely dif­fer­ent po­si­tions. The man watch­ing on TV mightn’t have much of a clue about scrums, thinks that props are the same, but there is this huge dif­fer­ence be­tween the two po­si­tions, tech­ni­cally. So, for me, mov­ing for­ward, I won’t be go­ing back loose­head. I cer­tainly hope not any­way.”

Since his Ire­land de­but, against Canada, that side of his ca­reer has taken off. De­spite Beal­ham’s pow­er­ful cameo against New Zealand in Chicago a year ago, it was Ryan who Sch­midt turned to as back-up for Tadhg Fur­long in the last Six Na­tions. And it was sig­nif­i­cant that Fur­long de­scribed Ryan last sea­son as the form tight­head in the coun­try. Props don’t tend to be too gen­er­ous in their com­ments about ri­vals. Even if Fur­long — a Lion-in-wait­ing at the time — felt se­cure enough to say it, his com­ment was spot on.

Af­ter last week­end, it’s clear Rassie Eras­mus thinks that leader­board has changed. Ryan can’t con­trol his match min­utes in Cas­tres this af­ter­noon but, given de­cent pitch time, he can lay down a marker to start against Rac­ing in Thomond Park next Saturday. If he’s on the bench again for that one, then the in­ter­na­tional win­dow next month is not go­ing to open very wide for him, and his run of eight con­sec­u­tive caps, start­ing with his Six Na­tions de­but in Rome, will be bro­ken.

So even al­low­ing for his short­com­ings against Le­in­ster, you’d for­give him if his first thought at be­ing dragged off ahead of ev­ery­one else that day was, why me?

“No, not really,” he says. “Ob­vi­ously that goes through your head, but he’s made the call. You’ve got to get off. There’s no point in hav­ing a sulk, is there?”

Well not now there isn’t. Too busy get­ting back to where he needs to be.

‘I’m tight­head now and that’s it — no go­ing back to loose­head’

John Ryan: ‘I do think I maybe suf­fered a bit play­ing both sides of the scrum, fall­ing be­tween two stools. You need to fo­cus on one really’

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