Donnacha Ryan is a favourite son of Nenagh and he will have significant support in Bilbao this weekend as Racing 92 set out to topple tournament favourites Leinster in the European decider.
North Tipperary rugby supporters, even those with a vague link to Leinster, won’t be holding back in their support of Ryan, whose popularity in the county goes beyond one sporting code.
Ryan’s youth coach was Pat Whelan who was typically shy of taking credit for the development of the big forward from underage rugby to stardom with Munster, Ireland, and now on to Paris.
Whelan said: “Yeah, I’ll take some credit but not a lot. I suppose I was a mentor to him more than anything else. New Zealanders grow up dreaming of being All Blacks, Donnacha grew up hoping to be a Tipperary hurler; that was him, he really started in rugby firstly to try to toughen himself up for hurling, he reckoned the contact in rugby would help him in that regard.
“Nenagh Ormond came into it, I came into it when I was involved with the youths here; we had a visiting school over here from Canada, we were housing them and I was looking for families to host the kids.
“Donnacha’s father offered to host some of the kids for me, I had been trying to get my hands on Donnacha anyway, to get him to play for us; he hadn’t shown any great interest but he came along, played, and though he knew nothing about the game, indeed he was a nightmare to referee in that match, he went on from there. What can I say?
“What I did notice about him was that he was everywhere, wherever the ball was he was there, not that he knew what to do when he got there, but that wasn’t the point.
"The thing was that he had a huge engine, he was just one of those kids that had a huge athletic ability, so I kind of brought him along to one of the Munster sessions, got him involved, tried to teach him the rules of the game and, I suppose, he got on well from there, didn’t he?”
Thousands of Irish supporters will be in Spain this weekend, most of them hoping for Leinster success. But there will be those who will be craving a different result.
It might be from 1,000 Munster fans who gambled money on tickets in the hope of seeing the men in red secure another European crown.
Those supporters would not have wanted anything but a Munster victory, and in the semi-final clash with Racing would never have given a second thought to Ryan beyond respect for his contribution over the years.
But the situation has changed and, now, one of their own represents the only opportunity to celebrate a European victory.
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