Donnacha Ryan’s flying start to his coaching career with European finalists La Rochelle is no surprise to former Ireland team-mate Iain Henderson.
Ryan, 38, is in his first season as forwards coach under former Munster and Ireland team-mate Ronan O’Gara and has helped the French club reach this Saturday’s Heineken Champions Cup final against Leinster in Marseille, beating former club Racing 92 in the semi-final earlier this month.
Ulster captain Henderson was involved in 13 Tests alongside Ryan over a five-year period, starting together in the second row twice, including the Tipperary man’s 47th and final Ireland cap against England in March 2017 before he departed for life in Paris.
O’Gara persuaded Ryan to move into coaching rather than play on with Racing and that his former pack-mate has adapted to his new career has not been a shock to the Ulster skipper.
“Having played with him before and organised attacks against teams, it’s definitely something you have to be aware of with Donners, that he’s going to be watching things meticulously and getting stuck into all the details, ” Henderson said yesterday on a United Rugby Championship call in advance of Ulster’s home quarter-final against Munster on Friday week.
Ulster hooker Rob Herring made a similar observation of a player whose Test career overlapped with his own without them ever playing together for Ireland.
“I haven’t spent too much time with him, but that is something that stood out when he was involved. He was kind of ahead of the curve with all that sort of analysis and the more professional side off the pitch,” Herring said. “It’s definitely something that stood out with him.” La Rochelle will go into Saturday’s final at Stade Velodrome as underdogs given Leinster’s majestic progress in their bid of gaining a fifth European star. Leo Cullen’s team are also favourites to secure a fifth league title in a row having topped the URC regular-season table to set up a home quarter-final against eight seeds Glasgow Warriors at the RDS on Saturday, June 4. Henderson has been impressed by Leinster’s strength in depth and their players’ ability to slot into a an hugely effective system and playing style harnessed by head coach Cullen and senior coach Stuart Lancaster.
“Whenever they have a team out, irrespective of who is playing, it’s impressive that you could almost recognise they are Leinster without knowing who’s playing (for them).
“The way they play, their shape is very impressive, how well drilled throughout the whole team for the whole game.
“One team that did it well before that sticks in my mind is Connacht when they won the (2016 PRO12) championship. They played their shape very well and they got into the flow of games and I felt it worked really well for Connacht and Leinster do that really well too.” Ulster’s third-place finish in the URC means they cannot meet Leinster again until the Grand Final on June 18, when Henderson hopes to deliver a trophy to the northern province for the first time since they topped the Celtic League table in 2005-06.
“Obviously it would be incredible to see us winning something,” he said. “A lot of that for me would be to see the younger guys winning something. They've put in so much over the last few years and, seeing them progressing, it would be great to get them into a winning habit or winning mentality.
“It would be great to see those guys who are born, frustratingly, after the millennium, to be winning stuff. To set them off at the start of their careers on a streak of winning trophies would be phenomenal.
“For us (older) lads, it would be something that we've been working towards and aspiring towards for a long time, not through lack of trying but a run of very frustrating games, frustrating knock-out losses. It would be phenomenal, the highlight of our careers if we were able to do something special this year.”