The former Munster and Ireland flanker is in Chicago for tomorrow’s international test with New Zealand, so will miss St Colmcilles’ Leinster Club IFC tie in Arklow.
His club mates can hardly complain too much. They got two seasons out of a player who, by his own admission, didn’t know if he’d ever run again when injury pulled the curtain down on his professional rugby career.
That was in early 2014, though the injury that finally broke a man of steel came the previous October, while training for a Heineken Cup clash with Gloucester.
“I was just lifted in a line-out and landed awkwardly,” recalled Ronan, who played 104 times for Munster in a storied era. “I was supposed to play against Gloucester on the Saturday and I was just regularly training, thrown up in a line-out but whatever way I landed I got this sharp pain in the back of my knee. I tried to rehab it but it didn’t work, got an operation with Ray Moran and it was pretty much medical advice I had to give it up.
“It was tough because I was probably playing my best rugby. I was 31, David Wallace was just retired and I was getting into the first team more regularly, starting Heineken Cup games but that’s sport. To be honest, when I retired I didn’t know if I could ever run again. My knee would completely lock. Sitting in the sitting room I wouldn’t be able to fully extend my leg so I’d lie on the kitchen floor to straighten it up. That’s how bad it got.”
Returning to Gaelic football probably shouldn’t have entered Ronan’s mind at that stage but the former Meath minor who grew up close to the local GAA pitch had an itch to scratch. As a child and then teenager when Meath were winning All-Irelands between 1987 and 1999, pulling on the green jersey was what used to make him tick.
“I played the whole way up with Meath from U14s and had two years of minor,” recalled Ronan. “I had a decision to make when I was 19, rugby or Gaelic football? I made the decision to go with rugby because financially I could make a career out of it. My dream of course was to play for Meath because I grew up in the good times but I can’t say I have any regrets either, it didn’t work out too bad.”
A return to club duty with Colmcilles, based between Drogheda and Bettystown in east Meath, where he runs Niall Ronan Performance and Rehab, was made possible by six months or so of rest throughout 2014. He lined out for the Cilles in a league game alongside Meath star Graham Reilly and took it from there.
“The lads call me Paul McGrath because I don’t train that much,” he smiled. “I’d do maybe 25% of the sessions. I can’t do any more, the body has just had enough.”
There’s no shame in that, considering the litany of injuries he’s had; neck and groin problems and both ACL and PCL knee issues before the one that finally finished him off.
Last Saturday week’s Meath IFC final replay win over Dunderry was his last significant act in Gaelic football. He won’t play on next year and will reflect on the most emotional of weekends when he said goodbye to a game he loves as well as a man he loves, Anthony Foley.
The day before the final, he was in Clare for Foley’s funeral. “It was tough, I still find it hard getting my head around it,” said Ronan. “My first year with Munster was his last year. He coached me for six years and was a Shannon man as well so we were quite close. It’s very sad, so tough on his family. I was devastated . I went to the funeral on the Friday and had to shoot off because we had a little baby to look after and then the match on Saturday. I kind of felt in my head if I could do anything in his memory, it was to win that game.”
They did, of course, and Ronan ran himself into the ground, wearing number 14 but playing as an auxiliary defender. He lumped over a point from 40 metres out too, a fitting tribute and a decent sign off.