Whether you are a coach or a player, Donnacha Ryan is a man you want on your team facing into the biggest challenges, and judging by the uproar when the Ireland lock was overlooked for an IRFU central contract last season, Munster supporters felt the same way.
Less than eight months after Ryan played his last game in red, bringing to an end a 13-season 164-game career in his home province, the painful memories of his departure to French Top14 heavyweights Racing 92 will be revisited when the second row goes head to head with his former team-mates in the sky blue and white of his new club at the U Arena in Paris.
And as much as he is respected in Munster, all of a red persuasion will be hoping his impact on this Champions Cup Pool 4 showdown will not be as emphatic as his talent and current form suggests may be the case.
The 34-year-old from Nenagh had to bide his time in France, a neck injury delaying his entrance to the Top14 until last month and causing him to miss a rapid return to Thomond Park when Racing visited in round two last
Yet Ryan is making up for lost time in Paris amongst a talented cadre of locks including Leone Nakawara, Edwin Maka, Patrice Albacete, and Manuel Carizza, and was already making his mark before getting through his first full 80 minutes in last weekend’s 58-6 demolition of a weakened Clermont side at the U Arena.
As a former Munster team-mate, Ronan O’Gara had known the Nenagh, Tipperary, man for the best part of two decades before he joined Racing and yet it was still an eye-opener to the fly-half turned coach about how much the Ireland star brought to the table.
O’Gara, now beginning life in New Zealand as an assistant coach at Super Rugby kingpins Crusaders, said his farewells to Racing just before Christmas but his Irish Examiner column tomorrow will provide a wonderful insight to the Ryan effect on his former club’s mindset.
“His performances have been really good,” O’Gara writes. “You knew from talking to him for 20 minutes that this guy was different gravy to what Racing had.
“It’s great to have footsoldiers but sometimes you need a general who knows how he is going to play.
“He’s hardy and intelligent. He can roll up the sleeves, but he adds big value to the environment because of the preparation work he does, which is why I admired him from a coaching perspective. You just can’t be making it up as you go along, he has it meticulously planned from the Monday before.”
That will not be news to Munster, for although the province’s set-piece has been one of the foundations of its success in Europe this season, powering Johann van Graan’s side to the top of Pool 4, four points ahead of Sunday’s opponents, captain Peter O’Mahony knows exactly what is coming their way at lineout time on the U Arena’s 4G pitch.
“He’s the kind of guy you want in your team on big occasions,” O’Mahony began.
“It’s probably enough said, he’s physical, he’s hard, he’s a very bright and diligent rugby player who does a lot of homework. So, he’s everything you want in a second row and in a big game at the weekend.
“Something that Racing are extremely impressive at is their lineout defence, and their ability to read. Obviously with ‘Dunners’ there now, it’s a little bit more difficult. But we can’t throw in a new lineout menu. We’ve got to go back to what we know, back to our basics, and trying to be accurate; top a jump, top a lift. You’re going to be up alongside some impressive guys in the air who can read well and have the ability to defend lineouts very well. At this level, it’s a contest of the highest order, and that’s what it’s going to be at the weekend.”
O’Mahony suggested changing Munster’s lineout menu and calls this weekend would be futile but that did not mean his team would be sitting ducks for the Racing forwards.
“No, no, no. Dunners knows what we do but we haven’t changed anything. But it’s still split second stuff, so even I was given a (rival’s) lineout call it would be very hard to react as quick as someone who knows what they’re doing. You just have to be good at it.”
O’Mahony believes his old mate will be having no problem having the same leadership impact at Racing that he did with Munster, regardless of any potential language difficulties.
“I think anyone with 50-odd caps for Ireland, he’s going to have picked up a lot. He’s a very diligent rugby player; he’ll do a huge amount of homework and analysis, so guys have got to listen to what he has to say and when he brings that level of performance which he can do, and like he did at the weekend, he’s a complete package with regard to a second row, definitely.”
O’Gara has seen that impact on Racing at first hand and in a recent column wrote of a star performance by the Irishman in the all-French round four home win over Castres.
“I was pleased that his colleagues are now getting to see the Nenagh hardness that he brings. If Donnacha can get that pack performing the way he did in Munster, he has great material to work with.
“He is hard naturally, which is a good trait. He has awkward hips and elbows, he doesn’t mind rolling up the sleeves, that edge comes naturally to him. Other have to feign it.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved