Munster’s Boris shows he’s not too dainty for front row rough and tumble – Irish Examiner

Online Version By Duncan Casey

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 tight head for UCC, he arrived in Munster as a loosehead. That was the start of a frustrating period where he was considered neither a loose head nor a tight head 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 loose head. Then there was another and I was back to tight head. 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 that 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. 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, however.

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.

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Rugby still the game for all creatures great and small – Irish Examiner

Online Version By Duncan Casey

You know the voices. Every sport has them. The ones that lament the state of “the modern game”, who hanker for the way things were.

Creatures of tradition that long for a return to the good old days, when the game was pure, full of integrity and so on. Joe Brolly recently said science is destroying Gaelic football and has suggested children play tennis instead. George Hook is baffled by the fact that rugby players carry the ball into one another instead of around, like they used to. John Giles just can’t stand Cristiano Ronaldo.

They are like Donald Trump supporters in some ways. No, I’m not calling them a basket of deplorables. They want to make their sport great again but might not be as well informed as they think.

People are flabbergasted at the size of rugby professionals today. Player weights are incomparable to what they were even 10 years ago. Purists argue that the game is full of muscular robots who are programmed to be dull and unadventurous. This, they argue, means rugby isn’t the spectacle it once was. Watching enormous men run straight into one another for 80 minutes isn’t the most riveting way to spend an evening. They claim there is no place for smaller, more talented individuals any more.

Such mournful talk makes me think of a scene from The Simpsons, back when it used to be funny.

Homer’s extended family is in town and they spend most of their stay playing an unusual game.

Two of the men put pots on their head, bend over and run directly into one another from quite a distance away. How the winner was determined I’m not sure. The naysayers would have you believe this is what is being served up in the northern hemisphere every weekend.

The notion that skill levels have suffered as players have gotten bigger is simply untrue. What we have seen in recent years is the emergence of freakishly big and powerful men with a skillset that anyone on the pitch would envy. Anyone that saw Montpellier winger Nemani Nadolo terrorise the Leinster defence two weekends ago knows what I’m talking about.

The Fijian monster stands at 6 ft 5 and weighs 140kg. To put it in some context, that’s about 10 kilos heavier than Mike Ross. Far from being a one-trick pony, Nadolo’s handling and footwork are as good as any winger around and he has a habit of slotting conversions over from the touchline while playing for his national side.

Another that dismisses the stereotype is Racing’s Ben Tameifuna. The Kiwi tighthead is 150kg, has a lethal turn of pace and is as capable of a one-handed offload as anyone. In addition to this, he is a plague at the breakdown with the ability to steal the ball as quickly as any back row I’ve seen.

But surely when men of this size are around, the pitch becomes an excessively dangerous place for a normal person? Have a huge number of exciting, twinkle-toed young men not been deprived of careers in professional rugby as a result? The facts disprove that theory. Rugby is more diverse now than ever before. Some of the most exciting and effective players in world rugby are punching well above their weight. Literally.

Take winger Gio Aplon. At 78kg, the average punter would probably laugh if you pointed at him across the bar and said he was a South African international. His countrymen aren’t exactly known for being small in stature. Aplon reportedly has a €1m contract at Bernard Jackman’s FC Grenoble and recently scored what will probably be the try of the season.

Weaving his way in from 60 metres out against La Rochelle, he left the bigger men in the dust.

Aplon will shortly line out alongside Kalolo Tuimona, another Polynesian wrecking ball that is making his way to France.

Nicknamed ‘The Bulldozer’, he caught Jackman’s eye after impressive displays in New Zealand’s Mitre 10 Cup. Understandably so — the last time I saw a tighthead score a hat-trick in 16 minutes was playing an U14 game against Crescent Comprehensive.

At 140kg he is, laughably, nearly twice the weight of his team-mate on the wing. It will be quite the sight if they ever stand shoulder to shoulder for a minute’s silence but one that would highlight the range of personnel that rugby requires.

Australia’s David Pocock and Michael Hooper are two the world’s best back rows. Each weighing just over 100 kilos, they are proof that size alone is no match for technical ability and an instinctive understanding of the game.

The pair consistently out-class bigger, stronger opponents who, on paper, they should be no match for. In the same mould is Munster’s Conor Oliver. The 21-year-old is not the biggest but hits ferociously hard and is certain to be a fixture in the province for many years to come.

We should be celebrating the fact that the sport provides a space that allows people of all shapes and sizes to thrive. From under-eights to Test rugby, there is no other team sport on the planet that can cater for everyone that wants to take part. If a child is a bit heavy or even overweight, they can play in the front row. If a child is small and skinny, they can play on the wing. If a child has an enormous ego, they can slot in at out-half!

This has always been a unique feature of rugby and not one we are in danger of losing.

We should be licking our lips at the evolution of the game and the size and ability of the people that play it.

Standards in rugby are at their pinnacle and will only continue to improve. There is no need to look back and long for what used to be.

The good old days were good. The days to come will be great.

Making mincemeat of those concussion myths – Irish Examiner

Is it any wonder rugby players groan when we see another headline about concussion? We sigh, roll our eyes and reluctantly read what the latest expert has to say. One more person that is convinced we are all lumbering along to a life of irreversible physical and cognitive damage, like cattle queuing up for the abattoir.

The most recent development in this saga was an open letter signed by 70 medical professionals last week. It called for the elimination of tackling and other forms of physical contact from schools’ rugby. However well intended the signatories’ suggestion may be, it is rather unhelpful.

Such an outrageous demand only serves to muddy the waters when it comes to the reality of the risks posed by our sport.

Mothers and fathers are already taken aback by the ferocity of collisions at international level. Now, they are being told it is downright irresponsible and negligent to allow their child to play rugby. I’m sure parents who read the letter could picture each of the doctors shaking their heads and tut-tutting in their direction.

Somewhat sensationally, the letter cites the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as if this this will make us feel morally obligated to stop our children tackling one another. Someone unfamiliar with the sport would be forgiven for thinking boys and girls were being given automatic weapons and being sent out to fight in a war.

Concussion is a serious issue. It should be treated as such. Huge strides have been made in the area of player welfare in recent years. Despite what some commentators believe, people are actually looking out for us. Rigorous head injury assessment protocols have been introduced to safeguard against missed concussions. I have had several conversations with players from different provinces about the issue, who all agree that the main focus of our medical staff is a player’s well-being.

If someone suffers a number of concussions in quick succession, they will be put on enforced leave. This has happened several times in recent seasons. If the relevant people decide that some time without playing is in a guy’s interest, it happens, whether he likes it or not.

I think more can be done. I don’t believe a player should ever take to the field after suffering a concussion one week earlier. Regardless of what the return to play protocols say, minimum rest periods would be a step in the right direction. Eliminating contact at schoolboy level would completely alter the essence of the sport and leave players totally unequipped to play the real thing when the time comes. It would be impossible to play at a decent standard without those years of development.

 

The suggestion reminds of an episode of South Park called “Sarcastaball”. Concerned about the danger posed to their children by American football, parents create their own sport. In this game, bras and little tin foil hats are worn instead of shoulder pads and helmets. A balloon is used instead of a ball, and the objective is for one player to run the balloon into the end zone, paying his opponents compliments as he runs past. The other players hug one another while this is happening.

The episode also highlighted the very serious issue of long-term health damage to veterans of the NFL. An undeniable link now exists between professional American football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. People have made a habit of pointing to this and shouting that rugby players are destined for the same fate.

There is a widely accepted narrative that collisions in the NFL and professional rugby are the same. To equate them is to reveal a lack of understanding of some fundamental differences between the two sports. The most obvious is the gear the players wear. American footballers take the field covered in glorified weaponry. They wear hard plastic helmets and hard plastic shoulder pads, which weigh about two and a half kilos each. Far from making the game safer for its participants, this “protective” gear only serves to cause carnage on the field.

Players routinely lead with their head when making contact with an opponent. There is a huge gap between the way tackling technique is taught in the two sports. In rugby, we are taught to never tackle with your head in front of your opponent’s body. If someone runs to your left, you hit them with your left shoulder and get your head behind their legs or torso.

In American football, youngsters are taught to get their head in front of their opponent and hit with their right shoulder. This would be a cardinal sin in rugby and rightly so; doing it puts you at massive risk of a head or neck injury.

The rules in American football encourage dangerous play. “No arm” tackling, banned in rugby, is probably the most common method of take-down used in the NFL. This is arguably the cause of more concussions (and tissue injuries) than anything else. In addition, players are allowed to fly in from behind to do damage to a man already on his way to the ground. Another recipe for disaster. From a safety point of view, rugby looks like a game of croquet in comparison.

The reality is the vast majority of boys and girls will go through their under age careers without getting concussed or having a serious injury. Admittedly, changes could be made to make the sport even safer for children.

I’m a firm believer in under age rugby being categorised by weight, rather than age. This is practised in New Zealand with great success. I only started to fill out and to be honest, enjoy the game at 16. Trying and failing to tackle the 6ft behemoths of Rockwell and CBC as a skinny little 13-year-old can shatter a guy’s confidence.

Sadly, I recently had my first conversations with mothers who were not allowing their sons to play the game. Rugby is generally a very safe sport for youngsters. The fact that it is losing potential players is a terrible shame. Hysterical suggestions about banning contact in a contact game give our sport a bad image.

It’s important we stand up for it.

You’d better make sure you’re ready when the bubble bursts – Irish Examiner

Online Version

Rugby players live in a bubble. To say we are removed from the reality of normal working life is an understatement, writes Duncan Casey.

We know nothing of graduate programmes, climbing the greasy corporate ladder or the grind of the daily nine-to-five. Professional rugby presents its own unique challenges and if you were to ask any of us which lifestyle we’d pick, you’d get the same answer every time.

It may not appear so but rugby players are a reasonably intelligent bunch of people. We tend to be level-headed, hard working, and disciplined. Such traits make it even more surprising that we give the fragility of our careers little or no thought at all. We go through each week in blissful ignorance, thinking it will last forever.

We believe the average career span of six years only applies to an unlucky few.

One thing that ends this self delusion is a ruptured pec muscle. That was the news that awaited when I answered the phone to get my scan results a few weeks ago. Surgery that Friday. Four months on the sideline. Lots of rugby to miss. I’ve had a few major repairs before, the most recent being a shoulder op in May of 2014. That came at the tail end of the season. The carrot of being declared fit by September meant there wasn’t much doom and gloom.

I wasn’t quite as lucky this time. The opposite in fact. November. Eight games into the season. First round of European Cup. Even writing it down makes me shake my head and swear silently.

If it had been a black and white bit of trauma it would probably be easier to take.

The fact is that I didn’t even feel it happening and thought the little pinch in my upper arm was something to do with how BJ Botha was binding in the scrum.

You go from one extreme to the other when this happens. From assuming you’ll play until you’re 35 to worrying if you’ll have a contract next year. I’d be lying if I said there hadn’t been a couple of semisleepless nights in the past couple of weeks.

I’m a positive person by nature but this set of circumstances would get Gene Kelly down now and again.

Fans of South Park will be familiar with Captain Hindsight. Captain Hindsight is a super hero whose special power is arriving at the scene of a tragedy and explaining what should have been done to avoid it.

Well, Captain Hindsight has a seat at the front of my mind at the moment and he won’t stop talking. ‘You should have finished your degree earlier. You should have trained your back more and your chest less when you were 16. You should have done less bench pressing in the days before the game. You should have grounded the ball earlier and your pec wouldn’t have ruptured’.

You get the idea. I’m the kind of guy that tells other people not to dwell on things, that you can’t prevent something that’s happened already. This hasn’t now stopped me analysing past decisions myself.

It’s the future however, that really makes you paranoid.

I witnessed what my team-mate and friend Mike Sherry went through over the past couple of years. Sports-related surgeries are not straightforward. Complications happen and they can be catastrophic. Mike waited almost two years to make his return to rugby. Thankfully he has done so and has taken up where he left off, playing some excellent rugby.

The resilience he showed in the face of his ordeal is an example to professional athletes everywhere and puts my own four-month layoff into perspective. At the same time, it makes me anxious that I could have complications of my own. What if I end up being out for eight months instead of four? And if I get another bad injury next year, will that be curtains for my career?

You worry that the guy getting his chance to impress will leapfrog you in the pecking order. Niall Scannell has been knocking on the door for some time and has a similar opportunity to the one I got in 2013.

He starts against Leicester Tigers at Thomond Park this evening in the Champions Cup. He’ll be hell-bent on ensuring I don’t return to the matchday 23 and I know I’ll have a tough job doing so. Yet another thing that plays on your mind. A positive outlook means I’m well equipped to handle these fears. Being injured isn’t all negativity.

Facing a lengthy layoff gives you the opportunity to target some other areas. It gives me the chance to put a couple of kilos on each of my legs for example, which I wouldn’t be able to do if I was fit. I’m enjoying helping out with analysis, which keeps me involved in the playing environment and broadens my awareness of the game.

I also have the chance to work hard on my life outside of rugby. This gives me a great window to research and write more articles. It allows me to have a more hands-on involvement with the Mid-West Simon Community than I have been able for in recent times. A couple of planned weekends in Iceland and Finland in the new year will be a nice distraction as well.

The most beneficial thing about all this, however, is the kick up the arse it has given me. The bubble will burst — you’d better make sure you’re ready when it does.

The benefits of kicking away possession – Irish Examiner

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We’re all familiar with it. That collective groan that surrounds you at a stadium or pub when Conor Murray launches another box kick into the sky.

“What’s he doing?” is the usual reaction. Parents of scrumhalves in every Irish province must be blue in the face from trying to justify this kind of behaviour to friends and strangers alike.

Everyone understands the need to clear your lines. It’s not putting it off the pitch that bothers people. It’s understandable. The most important thing in rugby is possession.

Without it you can’t score. Without it you can’t win. Why would anyone relinquish control of it by kicking it back to the opposition?

Scratch beneath the surface and you see that we should be cheering instead of groaning. When Conor kicks the ball it’s often in a part of the pitch that Ireland are under pressure to get out of. Rugby is all about building pressure. The perfect solution is one that transfers maximal pressure onto the opposition by challenging their composure, courage, skill level and work rate.

That’s where the box kick comes in. It has undergone metamorphosis from being a means of getting the ball down the pitch to being a means of getting the ball back.

Like counter attack, it has become a weapon in the arsenal of many teams. Ireland have the best executor of this skill in the world at their disposal in Conor Murray. It’s no surprise that this facet of the game is utilised so much. Even if it’s to the disdain of the average supporter.

Combine a good box kicker with powerful air marshals and you have the recipe for a cocktail of calamity on the receiving side. Irish players have been aerially supreme in 2015, to the extent that the national side can now go into games with the expectation of dominance in this area. The psychological effect of this is immeasurable.

Rest assured that seeing Tommy Bowe pluck the ball out of the sky 30 metres down the pitch will give the Irish players as big a lift tomorrow as any Peter O’ Mahony turnover or penalty in the scrum. The box kick has become as good a method of physically dominating your opponent as any other collision on the pitch.

Players like Dan Biggar, Felix Jones and Rob Kearney have built reputations as warriors of the sky. It’s an unenviable task to collide with someone, partially blind, five feet off the turf. Strange then that they love it so much.

This opportunity for physicality has more than one benefit. Back three players will tell you they can’t wait for the first box kick of the game. I spoke to one this week who explained that as a full back or winger, you will often go through the first 10 minutes of the game without touching the ball or making a tackle. In this case an attacking box kick is the perfect way to get these players into the game.

Not only that, it gives them the chance to have a massive impact early on. The first aerial contest will often set the tone for the rest of the game. Every contestable box kick means an opening for a player to do something huge. Who wouldn’t want that?

Even if a kick is overcooked tomorrow and Scott Spedding gathers with ease, he’ll have a defensive line with no fractures in his face. The French will have to retreat to secure the ball. Creating something from slow ball on the back foot is difficult, even with the flair of Michalak and the destructive force of Bastareaud.

Ireland will feel confident that they can handle whatever is thrown at them.

With this wisdom, the cynic will still find holes to poke. People fail to grasp why Conor would box kick around his own ten metre line. Surely it’s better to keep the ball in hand and wear the opposition down? It may surprise you that there are times when it’s more dangerous to have the ball than not. This might sound ludicrous but statistically robust analysis shows that after six phases, the defending side is more likely to score than the attacking.

That’s right — if you continue to hold onto the ball then you have a higher chance of ending up under your own sticks than the opposition’s.

Anyone who watches European rugby will have seen sides like Glasgow, Saracens and Clermont be more dangerous off turnover ball than anything else. A knock on or loose pass can easily lead to seven points.

When a team goes through multiple phases in this part of the pitch, play will usually have become somewhat pedestrian. There is little to be gained from continuing to ask a pack of forwards to generate go forward ball out of nothing. Precious energy will be burned without reward. Statistics show that a team is better off conceding possession and working to get it back. What better way to do it than by unleashing someone foaming at the mouth for a bit of action, like a hawk hunting a pigeon?

These factors combine to explain why Ireland will be hugely reliant on the box kick tomorrow. Dave Kearney and Tommy Bowe will fancy their chances against Noa Nakaitaci and Brice Dulin above ground level at least. It will make for a fascinating aerial encounter.

I’ll be licking my lips at the potential carnage each time.