To look at the way Donnacha Ryan earned his Munster Player of the Year award you would never imagine the bristling, marauding forward ever experienced moments of doubt.
From Ireland’s World Cup squad to a regular start at last in Munster’s Heineken Cup team and onto a first Six Nations start with a new two-year IRFU contract in his back pocket, the Tipperary lock and back row has enjoyed a season of personal high points, taking his aggressive, dynamic play to new levels for province and country.
Yet the season began with the 28-year-old measuring himself against France’s back-row colossi Imanol Harinordoquy and Thierry Dusautoir and not feeling comfortable with the comparison.
“To even get to the World Cup was a massive effort, especially in the warm-up games,” Ryan told the Irish Examiner ahead of tonight’s Rabo-Direct Pro12 semi-final at Ospreys. “We were playing a warm-up game in Bordeaux and I was in the back row and it’s about a 200m tunnel out to the field and I’m looking at playing back row against Harinordoquy and Dusautoir and thinking, ‘God almighty, these guys are in unbelievable shape’.
“I barely held my own over there, I suppose, but it was good. It came from last season, when I really got a string of games together in the back row and second row as well. And when you get a lot of games you build up a good bedrock of confidence, how the team plays and how you do. It allows you to manage yourself properly on the field and prepare for the bigger games so that you’re not as nervous for every big game you have. That way you can have a good mental resolve and not get too distracted.
“So it’s been a good season but hopefully from a team perspective we can keep things going on Friday night. It will be nice to finish off the season from a league point of view. I think we’ve used about 45 or 50 players in the Rabo this season and it would be great to finish on a high, especially for the guys who are leaving to give them a good send-off as well.”
The loss of not only head coach Tony McGahan but of David Wallace, Jerry Flannery and Mick O’Driscoll to retirement will be keenly felt by Ryan, who credits each one of the forwards with helping to guide him through the frustrations of being a fringe player in the Munster squad.
Ryan name-checked them all in his acceptance speech last Saturday night and thanked Wallace for helping him win his first Ireland cap, when the Nenagh man replaced the injured Lions back row for the last four minutes against Argentina in November 2008.
“Wally basically gave me my first cap, no disrespect to the management, but I asked him if he was okay after the game and he said ‘Aye, I got winded but I knew you wanted your first cap’.
“He didn’t get any money or other satisfaction for saying that and whether it was true or not, I don’t know but you had more faith in me than I did.
“It’s a tight-knit community we’re in, like a family, and to have guys speaking to us regularly, like Wally, Micko and Fla, they’re great guys, even just for chatting around and great craic. You’d like to send them off with some good memories. But you wouldn’t want to be getting ahead of yourself either. You’d want to put the emotions to one side and be as cool and focused on attacking the game professionally as possible.
“Obviously Dumper’s [McGahan] heading away now and he has a fabulous opportunity with Australia but for now we’re all in the business of winning trophies for one another.”
Trophies were definitely on Ryan’s list of objectives he set himself at the start of the season and while there will be no Heineken Cup glory, many of his targets have been achieved.
“Getting to the World Cup was a big goal and then trying to start regularly for Munster in Heineken Cup games was a massive goal for the last four or five years so that was nice for that to happen this season and then I guess it got to the stage where I was having to adapt that goal to trying to stay on for 80 minutes rather than being taken off after 50.
“So I’ve reached a few goals and a few haven’t worked out but I’ve always been a believer in staying as positive as I can. I’ve said this before but I don’t mean to be like Santa Claus on Prozac or anything but without a positive outlook you’re leaving yourself a lot of work to do.
“So things are going well and hopefully we can push on now to the end of the season.”
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