Donnacha Ryan has come a long way in a very short time, from Tipperary across the Pyrenees via Paris for a crack at joining one of rugby’s rarest breeds.
Twelve months on from the most anti-climactic of finishes in a Munster squad given the PRO12 final runaround by the turbo-charged Scarlets, Ireland’s émigré lock lines up in the biggest club game of all with the defiant look of a man hell-bent on doing something no Irish player has done for a long time.
Should Racing 92 succeed in preventing the No. 1 seeds painting the Basque Country green two months after the Grand Slam conquest of the Six Nations, Ryan will become only the fifth Irish player to win the Champions’ Cup with a non-Irish team.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with his Parisian team-mates in Bilbao this evening, Racing’s 6ft 7in import from Nenagh will stand out for reasons other than his height.
By simply lining up, he will take his place amongst the few Irishmen to have gone before him.
Since the advent of European competition in 1996, only eight Irish players have made it to the final after exporting their talent.
Fewer still know how it feels to win, amongst them a Leicester-based Dubliner whom the then Tigers’ coach Dean Richards introduced to the English Premiership as ‘the George Best of rugby’ — Geordan Murphy.
The other three Irish players who found Euro success away from home can be readily identified: Trevor Brennan, the Leixlip milkman, with Toulouse, Peter Bracken, from Tullamore, Co. Offaly, and Limerick’s own Eoin Reddan, each with Wasps.
Four more got to the final without lifting the trophy, starting with Eric Miller for Leicester in 1997. A trio of his compatriots followed the same path with the same club 10 years later, Frank Murphy, Shane Jennings, and Leinster’s current director of rugby, Leo Cullen.
None has been to as many finals as the other Murphy, four in all with the Tigers, winning twice (Stade Francais in 2001, Munster 2002) and losing twice (Wasps 2007, Leinster 2009). That last appearance, at Murrayfield, ended with Leinster’s crowning as European champions, under Cullen’s captaincy.
It evokes some painful memories for his compatriot on the other side. That Geordan Murphy made it onto the pitch was an event in itself given that he had spent the first three days of that week in such a state of blindness as to wonder when, or if, he would see again.
“I got the retina in one eye scratched against London Irish the previous week,’’ he says.
“A scratched eyeball causes the eye to sting unbearably so I could do nothing but lie on the sofa at home in complete darkness with my eyes closed. I did a press conference on the Thursday in a pair of sunglasses!
“When people saw the shades they thought I was being a prima donna. The truth was that I couldn’t tolerate any daylight but I wanted to be out there in the final so badly that I was prepared to put up with the pain.”
As if his eye condition wasn’t worrying enough, Murphy had also torn a groin muscle. Neither handicap prevented him from taking up his usual position at full-back as Leicester captain.
I’d love to have been fit and able to see the game out from start to finish. I wasn’t fit when I started but with so many injured players we were right down to the bare bones. We could hardly raise a team and the team we did have felt as though it had been put together by string. They put a high ball up very early on which I managed to catch. I remember Johnny Sexton dropping a long range goal early on and us being ahead going into the final quarter. I’d had to go off by then because of the groin. That day was one of my biggest disappointments in all my years at Leicester. It was definitely a bridge too far.’’
Munster in Cardiff seven years earlier had proved a bridge too far for Mick Galwey. As captain in a European final for the second time in three seasons, he was left wondering what might have been on a day remembered by Munster less for Murphy’s opening Tigers try and more for Neil Back slapping the ball out of Peter Stringer’s hands before he could feed a Munster scrum in the Tigers’ 22.
“The ‘Hand of Back’ still crops up,’’ says Murphy who retired five years ago after more than 400 matches for Leicester and Ireland.
Whenever the Ireland squad met up in subsequent seasons, Peter, Donnacha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell and the other Munster lads would have a dig about it.’’
Ryan and his Racing stablemates will not lack for any motivation, their resolve to knock Leinster off the loftiest of perches refuelled by constant references to their opponents being acclaimed as ‘the best team in Europe.’
For confirmation of that, Racing’s favourite Irishman need only check what his old province are saying about Leinster ahead of next week’s PRO14 semi-final.
Skipper Peter O’Mahony and coach Johann van Graan are singing from the same hymn sheet in talking Leinster up as though they have already reclaimed the European title.
Murphy, now 40 and still at Leicester as a coach after turning down an offer to take charge of Cardiff Blues, has a healthy respect for Racing as potential winners.
“They have a propensity to start games really big and blow teams away,” he says.
“Once on the front foot they are very difficult to stop. Who knows? It’s going to be a great final and I would expect Leinster to win it but it could be very close.’’
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