On November 12, John Ryan made his international rugby debut. People could be forgiven for thinking he came from nowhere; If you told him in June that this was on the cards, he would have laughed.
A likeable guy with a self deprecating sense of humour, people were genuinely thrilled to see him reach such a major milestone.
With 80 Munster appearances behind him, however, he is no stranger to the professional game. A first cap against the Canadians was the reward for large measures of patience, persistence and commitment in the face of what were, at times, very difficult circumstances.
Rewind to October 2014. Boris — so called due to a striking resemblance to British foreign secretary Boris Johnson — is sitting in Cork University Hospital. Having been diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis in 2011, this particular flare-up had knocked the wind out of his sails.
“I had an eye infection, scrum pox, my immune system had totally crashed from fighting the colitis. I was laid up for three and a half weeks and lost eight kilos. I was up and down with the sickness the whole time, I couldn’t concentrate fully on rugby until I got it sorted. Three and a half years dealing with that, trying different drugs. In December of that year, it finally settled down. I haven’t been sick since.”
Knowing how gruelling a season of training and playing can be with a clean bill of health, I can’t imagine how tough it must have been to be battling through such a debilitating illness for that length of time. Despite this, the thought of taking a break never crossed his mind.
“I never believed I was going to be a regular player but once I got a taste, I just wanted more and more. There was never a point, even when I was sick, that I thought about stopping. There were some pretty horrible times but I enjoyed it too much.”
Munster are certainly reaping the reward of this resilient attitude. John has spearheaded a revitalised Munster scrum that is statistically the strongest in the Pro12 this year. His performances in the tight and the loose have caused people to turn heads, and saw him named man of the match against Newport Gwent Dragons in Rodney Parade.
His path to professional rugby was unconventional.
Having come into the sub academy in 2007, he was released in 2009. At that point, his hopes of playing for Munster seem to have disappeared. He played for UCC and concentrated on his studies, with the hope of teaching history and geography after completing an arts degree.
A conversation with the UCC coaches was the catalyst for a new approach.
“In the summer of 2010, I had a sit down with Gary Bryne, Jeff Gomez (strength and conditioner) and Conor Twomey. They told me I had the potential to be a professional. I laughed. Five days a week for two hours a day, I was with Jeff. He got me into ridiculous nick. Well, ridiculous nick for a tight head! They spoon-fed me confidence which turned me into a different player.”
The gratitude he has for UCC is evident in how fondly he recalls his time there. After a series of impressive performances, he was invited to come in and train with Munster in January of that season. Initially, it was a hard adjustment to make.
“I was working as a bouncer in Cork. I might been finishing at four in the morning and come in to train at eight. After a few weeks, I was given a training contract that gave me enough to get by. I was glad to be able to focus on training.”
Despite playing as a tighthead for UCC, he arrived in Munster as a loosehead. That was the start of a frustrating period where he was considered neither a loosehead nor a tighthead but a utility prop. To an outsider, that level of versatility must appear to be a massive strength.
“Rob Penney came in and I was back to tighthead. Then there was an injury and I was back to loosehead. Then there was another and I was back to tighthead. I was third choice on both sides and that was the case until August of this year.
“The element of back and forth frustrated me more than not being a starter. I felt I had to choose a position before I could become a starter.”
Anyone who has played in the front row knows how challenging it is to switch from tight head to loose head and back again. It was something he did well in the past but is less comfortable with now — “I’m not ambipropstris anymore,” he laughs.
A UCC Arts graduate, John managed to complete his degree despite being thrust into a career in professional rugby in the middle of his final year. How he found out he passed his exams gives a good insight into his agricultural background in Berrings, Co Cork.
“We were actually draining the bog at the time and I said I’m going to check my results. Yes, I’d passed — straight back into the hole shovelling stones. Oh it was very safe, my father would dump a load of stones on top of me and I would shovel them around. The whole thing could have caved in on top of me but I didn’t care — I’d passed my exams.”
Would farming appeal to him? He has done it all his life. The desire to teach and coach schools’ rugby is the overriding one though.
Currently, his focus beyond rugby is on completing a Masters in S&C at Setanta College. Then he plans to dive straight into a research Masters on an area of US foreign policy, or the Irish diaspora.
Historical archives fascinate him. A career as an archivist? “I’m too rough. I would tear ancient scripts to pieces! I could be a bit of a Robert Langdon, but I’m not quite dainty enough.”
I doubt Munster, or Ireland, will complain about his 119kg being excessively rough or insufficiently dainty any time soon.