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'I'm in a different headspace from looking to retire a few weeks ago'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images for Barbarians)

Barbarians prop John Ryan can’t believe the bucket moments he is suddenly ticking off his list. Just a few weeks ago, when Wasps went to the wall and his three-year deal was kaput after only four months, the 34-year-old prop thought he was finished. Retirement was contemplated before his world turned upside down again… for far healthier reasons.

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A short-term deal was hurriedly struck by his Wasserman agent for him to return to Munster, the Irish province that coldly told him last December there was no contract beyond the end of 2021/22. That had left him stranded on 197 caps, three short of the double-century milestone. Now he is suddenly back in the thick of it, that career highlight he so severely craved is within touching distance again.

Then there is this week’s incredible craic in London. More bucket list capers. Before inking papers with his old club in Limerick, the Barbarians had called to invite Ryan over for this Sunday’s game versus an All Blacks XV at Tottenham. Playing for the Baa-Baas and facing the haka – two more much-desired rugby dreams are about to be suddenly reaslised. No wonder Ryan was jovially in pinch-me mode over a 20-minute call with RugbyPass the other day.

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“It has been pretty cool. Getting to know lads from all different parts of the world who are a very high standard of player and being amongst them is very humbling. And then obviously the coaches we have are very good. So far Joe Marler is holding court. He is the man pulling all the strings but Lauret (Wenceslas) from Racing is a very funny guy. Ronan (O’Gara) has been up there too, as has Scott Robertson. It’s been good craic.

“It’s definitely a bucket list thing I thought I’d get maybe kicking on towards the end of my career. I don’t think I’m at the end of my career, I’m 34 but it is something I always did want to do. I didn’t know I would get the opportunity but I’m happy I’m here. It’s definitely a bucket list thing and another one was to play against the All Blacks – both are happening in one week so it’s fairly good,” he chuckled.

“The social element, you hear stories (about the Barbarians) and I’m now thinking 90 per cent of them are true, it’s like nothing you ever do. It’s brilliant, unreal craic… There have been a few incidents in the evenings, there has been a song sung by one of the coaches. I’m not going to mention which one it was but the song might have ruined their dinner but he made ours.

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“I’m rooming with George Bridge, a different type of player, but he is a really sound fella,” Ryan added. “He just got in a couple of days ago and is moving to Montpellier so the room is full to the brim of bags and golf clubs. There is no way to move but he is a nice fella, we’ll leave him off.

“Networking is another big part of the week, seeing what it is like out there and just chatting, really getting to know fellas. It 100 per cent opens your eyes up and if I was aiming to get another life experience and move my family, create an experience for the whole family, I have been chatting to lads who are saying France is cool, I have been in England – albeit a small bit of time – so I kind of know that situation. But 100 per cent, the variety of people is definitely helpful with the networking.”

It won’t be just this week either that Ryan will press the Barbarians flesh. The front-rower is the only member of this week’s around-the-world Baa-Baas squad who will see the tour out. He’s staying on for the other games versus Harlequins, Bath and Northampton – an extension he can’t wait for as a number of old Wasps teammates, the likes of Jacob Umaga and Tom Cruse who are still looking for clubs, have been invited to play.

It’s difficult for Ryan to sum up the staggering Wasps unravelling. Redundancy never crossed his mind and he was left devastated when an old Munster colleague rang on October 17 to check on him after news of the collapse broke at the training ground at Henley-in-Arden. That was something the prop missed as he was still en route back to Leamington Spa after spending the weekend of the cancelled Exeter game at home in Limerick with his pregnant wife and two young children.

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“Three years signed and four months in, it was all gone. It was quite disappointing. I wasn’t there at Henley. We had a meeting the Wednesday before that I was at that meeting and things were looking hairy enough. They just said, ‘Look, go home, be with your families, do what you have to do, fly home’. So I flew back to Ireland and the flight back was Monday afternoon… and we were going to continue our season.

“We were going into administration but we were going to come straight back out of it, that was my understanding and that was what most people’s understanding was. But then when I got the phone call, it was actually Marcus Horan that rang and broke the news to me and I was shocked. I just didn’t see that coming at all. We weren’t expecting redundancy, we were expecting administration, to recover and finish the season, get relegated, come back and get stronger. That was the idea but unfortunately, it was a lot more sinister than that.

“So I missed the meeting in Henley-in-Arden, which I regret now because I missed a few of the goodbyes but I met a few boys over the couple of days after for coffees and stuff – but we were all organising our lives so I don’t think anyone wanted to be going out on big nights out.”

What helped Ryan was he had yet to move his family over to England, so he was fortunately alone when packing up the car and catching the ferry back to Ireland with retirement thoughts clouding his mind. “My family were staying in Limerick for the first year because we are expecting our third child so from that perspective, we are very lucky, it was an easier transition for me to move home.

“But you are signed up for three years, you are readjusting your life and then all of a sudden you are not getting paid your October cheque and you are under pressure. We all have bills to pay and they weren’t getting paid that month because I wasn’t getting paid. You just have to go panic stations and get your life in order, just logistically get over these little humps.

“I was thinking about retirement because I was kind of half fed up, but I’m in a different headspace definitely from when I was looking to retire a few weeks ago. I was contemplating retirement because there was nothing there for me. Then I committed to the Barbarians and signed the Munster contract on Sunday night at around 7:30. Nobody knew I was coming in (on the Monday), so it was quite nice. A lot of people were shocked to see me but they were happy. It was a really cool welcome back. It’s like never left really.”

Adding to the devastation, Ryan was really enjoying the style of Wasps’ play. Look at his Premiership debut for the club: the prop made an exciting gallop into space, his bust creating a cracking first-half try at Kingsholm. And then there was their only win of the season at Bath, the club where Johann van Grann, the coach who gave him his P45 last December at Munster, now works.

“We won’t get as personal as that now but the Bath game was a highlight as it was the only game I won over there. I didn’t play a whole pile but they played a good style of rugby that suited me and everyone was a ball player. Sometimes it can nearly be a bit black and white. When we played the last few years in Munster there were designated ball carriers but Wasps was everyone plays ball, it didn’t matter who you were.

“I was very happy in that system, enjoying my rugby. I’d do the basics very well and was trying to add something else in my old age. I was happy that (break) came in the Gloucester game and I hopefully can do something now this weekend with the Baa-Baas. You won’t see me kicking any balls but making a little bust or something will be nice.”

His Munster comeback was as a starter versus Ulster and he saw enough in his fleeting few training sessions to detect a very different setup compared to what he had known there under van Graan. “There is a lot of tempo, training is quite hard… a lot of time last year there was 15-on-15 on the pitch and there were lads who were on the sideline watching, twiddling their thumbs, but now if you are off the pitch you are doing skills.

“We are really working on the skills element, something we probably didn’t do as much before. It’s something that is drilled every single session now and hopefully people will see that, see a few more offloads or better skills, even better passing skills. That is a big difference really, and the new faces, the coaches, they are great fresh faces to have around the place with Graham Rowntree spearheading it.”

It sounds as if Ryan has suddenly landed on his feet despite Wasps folding, but the wolf still isn’t far from the door of the family home that is a stone’s throw away from the UL gates of the Munster training ground. As it stands, the ex-Ireland forward will become jobless again at the end of January. His future needs sorting out.

“It [his Munster deal] is only three months, up to January, and my wife is expecting in January so that is convenient enough but I would hope that to be renewed until the end of the season. We will see what happens, I will play my rugby, try and do as good a job as possible and see if there is space for me.

“Where my headspace is at the moment, I would love to see out the season with Munster. I would 100 per cent like to stay in Munster. They are not going so well at the moment but you can see there is so much change and I believe something (good) will happen there. That would be exciting to be a part of but something in France or England would also be appealing. I’d be willing to move again, to see what is out there. I’m ruling nothing out and have a very open mind for 2023/24 season.”

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