"In this society, it's tough for people to have, and to hide" - John Ryan
"Men try to bottle it all up. We're hoping the conversation will continue after this."
John Ryan is closing in on his 10th year with Munster's senior squad and he will be hoping to add to his 21 Ireland appearances when Test rugby returns later this year. He has settled into life as a senior pro, but it wasn't always this serene.
When the Cork native talks with us, there are just over two weeks until his Munster side get back to Guinness PRO14 action against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium. During the course of a 15-minute chat, the word 'hopefully' is mentioned about 20 times. That's the way of it now.
Ryan is promoting a podcast on colitis and Crohn’s disease, collectively known as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), that goes by the name 'Gutcast'. His episode, entitled 'Have the guts to speak out', drops midweek and features contributions from along with former Monaghan footballer Andrew Kiernan and comedian Andrea Farrell.
The tighthead is eager to see Gutcast do well as he hopes it will help to highlight the IBD issue to the wider public and let those living with it know they are not alone. Ryan himself suffers from ulcerative colitis and has seen it have a massive impact on his life, and rugby career.
"For me, it means my large colon is affected by ulcers and swelling. It often leads to cramping of my abdomen which can be often quite painful and continuous. It started around 2011 and I had it for about two years before it got worse.
"I didn't bring it up [with Munster] at the start. In my mind I thought I'd lose out on a contract and that they'd think, 'Oh, he's ill. We'll pick the other fella'. I realise now that it was nothing to be embarrassed about."
Ryan made his senior Munster debut in early 2011 and was getting game-time - before World Rugby allowed an extra spot on the replacements bench - as a loose- and tighthead. He was able to cope with the ulcerative colitis until the 2014/15 season when matters came to a worrying head.
"I was looking to secure a tighthead spot at the time [autumn 2014] when I got quite ill. I missed a good few weeks and lost about 10 kilos [22lbs] at the time. I had been in bed for about three weeks when Axel [Anthony Foley] rang me and asked if I could play 80 minutes at loosehead against Cardiff.
"I had told Axel about my condition the season before, when it started getting bad. He said, 'Is it going to stop you playing rugby'. I said no and he told me, 'Then it's no problem at all'. He was very supportive, and would often give me a day off if I had a hospital visit, so it was good to be able to pay him back.
"I came off my sick-bed at 108 kilos, the lightest I had been since I was at school, at played the full 80 minutes against Adam Jones, over in Wales, and we won. That was the game Jones went for a drop goal.
"I needed a steroid to get me back fit and to get rid of it. We had to apply for TUEs [Therapeutic Use Exemptions] and I battled with it for six months until it went away. I then went over four years without a symptom but it came back at the start of the 2019 Six Nations.
"I suffered from it the week before the Italy game. I got through that game on adrenaline but suffered a bit after that."
With another dose of treatment, and with an improved diet and understanding of his condition, Ryan got through the World Cup camp in good shape and travelled with Ireland to the 2019 World Cup. He returned from Japan and played 11 games for Munster before the pandemic-enforced break in the rugby season.
Ryan says he is still tinkering with how to best cope with his condition but he can't afford to be too restrictive with his diet. As a prop, he needs to consume over 4,000 calories a day in order to keep the weight on.
Every eight weeks, Ryan heads to hospital and gets an infusion of vitamins through an intravenous drip and he feels that arrangement has helped his cause massively. There are still certain things that he must avoid or go very easy on.
"The beer kills you," he says. "Not drinking after a big game is very tough. The lads are all having a drink, and you want to too, but it is best off avoiding it."
Having come forward, back in 2013, and told his coaches and teammates about his condition, Ryan believes his burden was immediately lightened. He hopes the podcast series will spur others to come forward about what they are dealing with.
"In this society, it's tough for people to have, and to hide. Around 40,000 people in Ireland have some form of IBD. Just over 50% of that 40,000 say they've got depression through it and not talking about it plays into that, especially with men. Men try to bottle it all up.
"People don't like talking about it but it really does help. I hope people get something out of the shows, even if it is knowing that others are going through what you're going through."
The 'Gutcast' podcast was created with the Irish Society for Colitis and Crohn’s Disease in partnership with Janssen Sciences Ireland UC and is available to listen to here: https://iscc.ie/gutcast/