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'It sounds barbaric looking back now, you have to laugh at it'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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It’s crazy how it has all turned out for Donnacha Ryan. There he is living the life in France as a first-year Top 14 forwards coach with La Rochelle, the club now run by Ronan O’Gara whose exploits on a winter’s afternoon 22 years ago was the catalyst for the then lanky teenager to head down to his local rugby club the following day and start playing the sport for his first time at the very late age of 17.

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Hurling had been Ryan’s passion growing up in the Co Tipperary town of Nenagh but his aspirations of playing it at a high level had come unstuck due to his lack of bulk. So having watched Munster revel in a comeback European win over Saracens on the gogglebox, he figured a trip to the rugby club could help transform his body and have him pitch-perfect for his hurling to thrive.

Little did he know, though, that this innocuous first step would unwittingly unleash the genie from the bottle that today still has him earning a crust from the professional sport he fell into purely by chance.

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Will Skelton on the Ronan O’Gara slap and Australia vs England | Le French Rugby Podcast | Episode 24
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Will Skelton on the Ronan O’Gara slap and Australia vs England | Le French Rugby Podcast | Episode 24

“Gosh, Rog knocked a ball over from the sideline off the post or something like that and I ended up playing rugby the following day,” gulped Ryan when reminiscing the other week with RugbyPass about how it all so innocently started out for him, yet there he is now joined at the hip with O’Gara trying to guide La Rochelle to the promised land. “I’d been trying to progress in hurling and wasn’t the biggest. I was tall but not the most blockiest fella in the world so I decided to give rugby a go. It’s been a long old tour but a really good experience.”

Damn right it has. There were eleven seasons in the Munster first-team, 47 caps featuring two World Cups and a historic breakthrough first win over the All Blacks with Ireland in Chicago, and then four more years as a player with Racing before the call came from O’Gara asking him to begin his coaching apprenticeship at the age of 37 rather than follow through on offers to keep playing away for another while yet in the French Pro D2.

It’s been a frantic transition. Within days of La Rochelle getting beaten in last year’s Top 14 final, Ryan was in the Charente-Maritime capital attending a planning meeting for the new season and finalising the living arrangements for his wife and their two French-born kids to make the switch to the coast from Paris. His role isn’t just simply hands-on at the club either. Rookie coach status means he must earn his badges and he has embarked on an 18-month holistic tuition course via a centre in Montpellier that even includes studying the ins and out of wheelchair rugby and other such iterations of the sport. There was also a recent week in England, three days at Leicester and a day each at both London Irish and Richmond.  

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For sure it takes up a lot of time but it’s worth it when Ryan feels he is improving by the week with what he has to offer La Rochelle and its star-studded dressing room. “There were a few offers to keep playing but Rog said do you want to come down and I said grand,” explained Ryan on why he opted to dive in at the coaching deep end rather than keep lacing up his boots. 

“I was getting to 38 and had played 24, 25 games last season. The matches were actually fine, it was the training that was catching up on me. If you want to play over here in France you have to do all the training sessions. When you’re 20 you can recover a lot quicker. It’s a bit different when you’re 37, so I just decided to try a new experience.

“It has opened my eyes, taken me massively out of my comfort zone, but it’s like anything, getting your routine for the week is the big thing. When you’re a player you know your routine, you have got your dietary needs, your recovery needs, but I found that quite tricky at the beginning as a coach because literally there is no easy way of doing it.

“You just have to figure out how as you go along and it depends on what type of coach you want to be. I’d just stopped playing for Racing against La Rochelle in the semi-final and two or three days after they lost the final against Toulouse, I was having a meeting to plan the following year and was just straight in, having to move house and do a variety of things. 

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“It was a helter-skelter first few months here just to get prepared and it took a while to catch my breath, but I’m doing the coaching course you’re obliged to do. So I’m managing that and trying to figure out the routine at the same time as getting to know the players which is a big thing as well because it’s all about people really. It’s all a learning curve, a new experience, but it is what I wanted to do – I wanted to learn.”

What aided the transition was seeing fellow Irishman Mike Prendergast coaching when Ryan was in his final years at Racing. Some nuances in getting your point across as a foreign coach in the French game rubbed off, even though there were understandable teething difficulties when put on the spot at La Rochelle.  

“I’m a lot better than I was at the start, that’s the way I look at it,” admitted Ryan, nine months into his new career as a coach where his baptismal deal has another year and a bit to run. “I used to get pretty frustrated with it because I was terrible, not terrible but a Tipperary accent doesn’t mix well in French. But if you can make light of it and fundamentally get your point across then it’s the main thing. 

Donnacha Ryan La Rochelle coaching
Donnacha Ryan on a visit back to Limerick (Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

“They accept you’re not going to speak fluent French, know every single word and the slang, but it’s a tough thing to do, coach in another language. I learned an awful lot under Mike in my last year, he is a fantastic coach, very good on detail and very precise in his delivery. I should be here at La Rochelle for another year or so, but you never know in France. We’ll keep trucking along, keep getting better, trying to be better next week than I was this week.”

It can be an awkward adjustment going from player to tracksuit and coping with a very different dressing room role, but Ryan loves the La Rochelle dynamic and reels off a list of names as long as his arm of those players who have impressed in his new coaching environment. Special mention goes to Victor Vito, though. “Such a fantastic guy, a great player, always training looking to get better, always wants to help out guys.

“It’s really fantastic to see a guy work like that and it’s pleasing as well because you know guys back in Ireland are doing pretty much the same thing as he does and he has won two World Cups, so it’s great to know that Ireland has come a long way and great that a world-class guy has come over and has kept his good behaviours from when he was a young guy. A big thing is you can come over to France and take it easy, but you have to be ambitious and if it’s in your DNA that’s it – he’s a fantastic competitor.”

What is the impression of O’Gara as a coach? “He is so busy, such a busy, busy man, juggling so many things,” said Ryan, speaking prior to last weekend’s slap-gate incident between O’Gara and his opposite number at Bordeaux, Christophe Urios. That rivalry had a European sequel on Saturday, La Rochelle winning a Champions Cup first leg tie 31-13 ahead of next weekend’s Stade Marcel-Deflandre return.

“He is great, great. He is really good on the people side of it and looking after boys is key. You look after the person first, that is what you’re dealing with. He is really good, has a great way about him and it’s an enjoyable atmosphere to be working in. It’s great to have someone over here (from Ireland) to be working with, to bounce ideas off as well and to shoot the breeze with about stuff going on at home. It is very, very enjoyable.”

Essentially, you can take Ryan out of Ireland but you can’t take the Irish out of Ryan. He originally emigrated to France in 2017 but all these years later he rang for his RugbyPass interview from an Irish mobile number and after the conversation ended, he then turned the tables, asking numerous questions about post-pandemic life back home before some shouts in the background told him it was time for the late evening coaches meeting he had stayed on at the club for. 

There is also the stereotype of being a fair-skinned Irish person who burns too easily. “I still struggle with the sun, you get sunburnt over here quite easily,” he admitted, “but other than that I enjoy it. Munster was fantastic but rugby in a different country definitely opens your eyes and I never thought it was on the cards to do. We miss home massively with family and everything but at the same time, you grow stronger together over here.

“My commute home from the Arena in Paris was a tough commute,” he added with a giggle. “You’d drive past the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, which was kind of cool. I still have the scooter, it takes about ten minutes to get to work every day at La Rochelle. It’s very handy. The weather today is about 17, 18 degrees, so it’s fantastic to still have the scooter. There is not as much traffic and the views are still spectacular on the way home as well with the beaches.” 

It’s an overseas adventure Ryan thought was beyond him given the complicated toe injury that nearly forced him into retirement in 2014/15 while in Ireland. “That time during my foot injury, you realise the phone doesn’t ring and the rugby world keeps going without you and that was a real sobering thing for me. 

“It was a very difficult injury to manage, a rare enough injury. I did things at the time (financial planning, etc) to prepare for retirement, to have some peace of mind for after rugby and it allowed me this licence to go off and try something different in France. Having that safety net is something every player should have because it’s such an attritional sport. 

“It was a cue to go, ‘Right, we’ll head away and try something new’,” he reflected, adding how he went from chronic pain to only fleetingly being affected by it in the latter stages of his career. “Just the odd time, not too much, a consequence of getting a bit older. The surgeon did a fantastic job taking out the two bones and it’s still okay at the moment, thank God. I haven’t done as much running since I finished.”

As an apprentice coach, what coaches most piqued Ryan’s interest during his distinguished playing career? “You take influences from everybody. Whether it’s positive or negative, they are all experiences. Unfortunately at Munster, we had a lot of coaches but at the same time, we got to learn a lot from them as well. Rob Penney, I’d be a big supporter of him, his fantastic way with people and fantastic attitude. He brought a different dimension to Munster that I thought was fantastic.

“And then obviously Joe Schmidt was world-class, massive on detail. Rassie Erasmus was a good example of how to be efficient on things and make them as simple as possible. Laurie Fisher was a fantastic coach and from a lineout point of view, Gert Smal was really good and Simon Easterby was fantastic as well, his approach to managing the guys was really good. 

“So yeah, fortunately, I’d a lot. I’d Declan Kidney there as well, Les Kiss. You definitely appreciate it. As a player, you’re just thinking about yourself all the time but as a coach, you’re there thinking about 35 lads… so you take bits from everybody and even outside of rugby as well, it’s important too to keep it fresh and challenge guys. That is interesting.”

There is plenty of time for this getting-to-know-you given La Rochelle’s off-the-beaten-track location. “You’re on the road a lot. In Paris, you take a lot of flights to other cities with Racing but at La Rochelle, we bus a lot. It’s a cool lifestyle but the players are definitely on the road a lot and the season is very long in a very physical league. It has really ramped up massively since my first year, the quality of rugby and the ball is in play a lot more, in the high 30s most of the time. That’s tough going for the players but to be fair it is fantastic for the supporters and a testament to the quality of the pitches, the quality of games is better and the referees are a lot fitter as well.”

It’s a landscape very different from how it all innocently started for Ryan. While his great mentor Pat Whelan from Nenagh helped him learn the rules of rugby and developed the habit of writing down goal-setting, there were also crazy days off Ryan’s own bat clocking up the running miles in a farmer’s field with a pack filled with rooster spuds on his back. “You laugh at that now but I’d no internet or anything like that, you didn’t have the tools to learn what strength and conditioning was. 

“I know it sounds barbaric stuff looking back at it now, you have to laugh at it but at the time I was a young fella and literally I was there throwing the bag of spuds in the backpack. It wasn’t just about putting weight in from a physical point of view, it was ‘okay, I’m going to be dealing with a million other things and I have still got to turn up and play’, so it’s the mental stress of the weight as well. 

“It wasn’t just one thing, there was a variety. Some days things in your personal life can affect you as a rugby player but you still have to go out and turn up and that is a big challenge for a lot of players as well nowadays. A player just wants to play consistently for around 80 per cent of the season and maybe gear up towards the end because it is hard to play 100 per cent the whole time. It was very naive of me [the potatoes backpack], I’ll hold my hands up there, but at the same, it didn’t do me any harm and it gave people a few laughs. That’s not a bad thing either.”

It sure isn’t. “Every night for probably a year and a half, two years, I’d go there for a few laps. It was silly. I was super fit but I was too light and getting busted in tackles but that was a good thing because when you’re that light you have to learn to be technically very, very sound and then when you let genetics take hold and you get bigger and stronger in time you can marry the physical side with the knowledge you have as a bit of a skinny guy.

“When you’re playing the first thing to go is your brain and if you haven’t got that fitness you’re pretty much useless at the higher level, so if you can think smarter you cover a lot of the bases. Mentorship of young men nowadays is a bit lost, but fellas like Pat were very positive to me which is why I stayed at rugby because hurling was and still is my first love. Those mentors were really positive, encouraging you and at the same time challenging you as well.

“Coaches in general in Ireland, from my experience, don’t see the potential in young guys because we probably don’t develop as fast as guys in other nations do. That is a big thing for me, you have got to see what can be as opposed to seeing what isn’t, to give lads the tools to get better because at the end of the day if they have the right attitude you can teach them the skills and the knowledge – but the attitude is the big thing for me.”

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