The Christmas chat with "straight-shooter" ROG that got Donnacha Ryan into coaching
"He must be the most successful coach of all-time."
Ronan O'Gara was only half-joking about Donnacha Ryan, not long after La Rochelle claimed their second Champions Cup trophy in the space of 12 months. By Saturday night, Ryan and O'Gara could be Top 14 winners.
It has been quite the start to the coaching career of Donnacha Ryan, at Stade Rochelais. Ryan moved from Munster to Racing 92 after the IRFU gambled on a cheaper contract offer the Tipperary native felt he was worth.
Ryan was 33, going on 34, when he arrived in Paris and many would have guessed he would get one last, decent contract in his playing career before wrapping it up. Six years later [four as a player, two as a coach] he is still in France. 'Skin' played 84 times for Racing and helped them to two Champions Cup finals. His final Racing game came at the hands of O'Gara's La Rochelle in the 2021 Top 14 semis.
Even before that, his old Munster teammate had been looking out for him. Ryan tells us, "I was enjoying playing but it was the training that was tough. Towards the end, I could train Thursday and play Saturday but what we were doing at Racing was a lot, for me. That's it, though, father time catches up with everyone."
"Myself, Jen and the kids came down [to La Rochelle] for Christmas [in 2020] and we had a bit of a chat. There was no real pressure, as well, just saying there would be something here for me if it was something I'd be interested in doing. Everyone knows ROG, he's a straight-shooter, which is great. It was a great opportunity for us to experience a different lifestyle and to try this different side to rugby.
"The biggest thing I enjoyed from rugby, in the latter part of my career, is helping guys. If your body can't do what it could at 25, 26, 27, you can still try bring lads along with you. I really enjoyed my last year with Mike Prendergast at Racing. Similar mindsets, mad to play and very ambitious guys, him and ROG. I'm mad to learn off them."
Donnacha Ryan on working with Ronan O'Gara
"The biggest thing with ROG, as a coach," says Donnacha Ryan, "is he creates a fantastic environment, with lads happy to come into work.
"He lets you coach, too. He's not on your shoulder too much. The best thing about an English speaker coaching in France is that you make a lot of mistakes. It's being comfortable knowing you'll make mistakes. That, at once, humbles you and makes you realise you don't know it all.
"You have to find out another way, or the best way, to communicate with other guys. Whether that is a game, funny videos or writing something up and presenting it. So, the last few years have been very good for that - experimenting with different things for meetings. I used to sit there, in some meetings that would go on for 45 minutes or an hour, and I wouldn't have learned anything. So, for me, it's about learning as well. How fast you learn often depends on how much time you put into talking to the guys and getting feedback from them, and the coaches.
"It really takes you out of your comfort zone, coaching in a second language. You think you know a lot about rugby but when you're doing it in a different language, you really have to think about what you're saying, and how you are saying it."
Ryan and his wife full embraced the Parisian lifestyle for their time in the French capital and Simon Zebo once recalled how the lock would stubbornly try to get through training at Racing, in his early days, trying to say as little English as he could. He was mad into the French lessons and audio tapes as he tried to get up to speed.
While his French has improved [he is nearing the end of a two-year diploma course], Ryan's Irish has got rusty. Himself and Jen have found a useful way to keep it going, though.
"When myself and my wife want to discuss something and don't want the kids to know about it, we start doing it in Irish! But we're now finding we start off speaking Irish and end up in French. It has been so long since I spoke Irish properly... you'd miss it, as well, but French is a difficult enough challenge for me, at the moment!
"It's part of our culture and who we are, and what makes us unique. We can go around the world and tell people we're great at drinking, and all that stuff, but, at the end of the day, that's our DNA and how we communicate. That's where our mannerisms and sayings originate from the language."
Another big shift for Ryan the coach was stepping away from being the player in the changing room, and going for team-bonding beers, to being the coach. It helped that he was already friendly with Sean Dougall and Ronan O'Gara, but he eventually found the balance.
An interesting Stade Rochelais wrinkle, this season, was the arrival of Ultan Dillane, who he played together with for Ireland, arriving over. The teammates relationship had to switch to coach-player.
"I really had to learn all that on the job, and I'm still learning, which is great... Ultan is fantastic. We're very lucky to have him. He's a second row who has been doing a job in the back row for us. That's the sort of profile he has, he's versatile and gets on great with the boys.
"I'm pretty straight with the guys. I would have played against a lot of these boys here in my last game [for Racing] and we've knocked a bit of craic out of that. It's all about feeling comfortable in your own skin and ROG is great for the culture he has built here."
Although La Rochelle got one over Leinster again, in this season's Champions Cup, there is still huge respect for all Irish teams in France, particularly the national side.
Heading into the World Cup, Ryan says Ireland will be in a lot of French conversations. "It's great to see Ireland going so well. It definitely makes our job a bit easier, as well, as you can show some good examples of what is going on in their games to our lads.
"The French team have a lot of players that play in a very tough league. Every week they are gearing up. They are going into games with knocks every week, too. The Irish team will not be deluding themselves - the challenge will be steeper in the World Cup. It'll make for a fantastic World Cup."
On Saturday, Ryan could become a double European Cup winner and a Top 14 winner in his first two seasons as forwards coach with La Rochelle. Asked to reflect on the rollercoaster, Ryan quickly goes to a huge dip at the start that most people forget.
"I think we lost four of our first five games and we were just so unlucky is a lot of games," he recalls.
"There was a game just after Christmas - it was a late kick-off and in Bordeaux. It was such a fantastic performance [La Rochelle won 16-15] that it proved such a catalyst for the players for the rest of the season. It gave them that belief. Then we went back to Bordeaux for the first leg of the Last 16. We went down there and won that well, so that gave the lads such belief and they kicked on."
They kicked on and haven't stopped yet.
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