Racing 92’s Donnacha Ryan chats to Sky Sports Rugby in the first of a two part exclusive, opening up about the foot injury which wreaked havoc on his life and career for over a year.
Get Lucky by Daft Punk blares out at ear-splitting volume within Europe’s newest and most modern stadium, the U Arena.
The song is intermittently interrupted by three sharp blasts of a banjo, once more of booming volume, accompanied by a 148ft Doritos crisp packet bouncing up and down in tandem with the shrilled notes, on a screen 2000m squared in size – that’s half an acre.
Groundsmen have been replaced by pyrotechnics and light studios in this western suburb of Paris.
Irish second-row Donnacha Ryan sits up in one of 32,000 seats, head in hands laughing at the madness unfolding before him. Not an hour before, Racing 92’s squad were training on the U Arena’s luminous green synthetic surface.
“This is what you’re dealing with now,” he says chuckling.
A non-retractable 640-tonne roof lies above. It encapsulates layers of curved concrete on the outside of this stunning Nanterre amphitheatre.
The temperature is regulated constantly, but ventilation maintained. There’s no greasy ball as Ryan has experienced in Cardiff’s magnificent Principality Stadium.
Built at a cost of £318m, the inimitable structure was designed by architect Christian de Portzamparc, and sits on a rectangular plot surrounded by four main roads. All roads literally lead to the U Arena.
One thing’s for sure. There’s nothing wrong with Jean-Paul Lamoureux’s acoustics.
It wasn’t always like this for the 34-year-old lock. Indeed, it very nearly wasn’t at all.
Four years ago, he was mere days from retirement. A pesky bone in the balls of his feet the complaint…
The rain lashes down in Limerick. Munster are preparing to face Italian outfit Treviso at Thomond Park. It’s late March 2014.
Ryan sits in a dressing room surrounded by isotonic drinks, energy bars and wrapping tape. It’s a set he’s experienced 127 times before provincially.
He hasn’t played for Ireland in a year. Privately, he’s made a vow to get back to Carton House as soon as possible.
With 20 minutes to go in the match, Munster lead 14-3. It’s a dreary encounter in truth, made worse by the sodden conditions.
Ryan carries the ball into contact, just as he has done on countless occasions before. From around the corner, replacement second row Donncha O’Callaghan and Treviso No 8 Robert Barbieri appear. Something crunches in Ryan’s foot.
“Like crushing an ice cube” – that’s the sensation. A sesamoid bone within his foot has just broken. For the last quarter, it feels as if he’s running on a thumbtack.
The final whistle goes and he smiles as he shakes hands with referee Leighton Hodges. He knows little of the torment to come.
“I was going to finish up in the end. It was as close as it gets to retirement,” Ryan says, the interview by now having moved from the stands to a media room just off the U Arena’s tunnel due to unremitting sound testing.
“I was struggling to walk, and if you can’t walk, you’re really not very much good as an athlete.
“I’d developed chronic pain. The difficult part of it is that you’re on these things all the time, and when you start running, seven times your body weight goes through your feet.
“It was constant pain. I knew there was something seriously wrong.
“There’s two balls of your feet and I had done the more complicated one. I had three pains out of it.
“An aching pain, a sharp pain when I put pressure on it and then I had a burning pain from the nerve near the bone. That was the last thing to go because I had forgotten what it was like not to have pain in my foot.”
After four weeks, unbeknownst to Ryan at the time, he had missed a vital cut off point at which the bone could be put back in place with a screw. Necrosis had set in; the bone had now begun to decay.
Day after day Ryan arrived at Munster’s training ground, grimacing more as each passing week transmuted his walk into more of a shuffle.
Undertaking physio at the province with likes of Cork native Colm Coakley consisted largely of the same narrative.
‘How’s it feel today Donnacha?’
If he’d had a decent night’s sleep, the reply would be: ‘Yeah it feels kind of good!” Exercises would consequently be attempted, but square one was continually the end result. No targets were being hit.
“It was very difficult mentally,” he says. “I struggled massively with the fact that I was getting paid and felt like a freeloader.
“It’s all-consuming really. You don’t eat as much or as well, your lifestyle begins to deteriorate. Everything deteriorates.
“When that happens you get into a really bad rut because simple things like getting your diet right or getting your washing sorted out become difficult. Your place turns into a mess.
“You’re almost in a sort of self-destructive mode, because you’re in so much pain, you don’t really care. I was in a dark place.
“I had more than one medic or doctor look at me and say: ‘Enjoy retirement’. And that was hard to take as well. But they are just medical opinions.
“You have more bones in your feet and hands than you do in the rest of your body. It’s such a complicated area. And that was what was most frustrating: the lack of knowledge that was out there on it.
“There was a genetic aspect where sometimes those two bones aren’t together, they are bipartite, separate. And that was the initial deduction with me, which turned out to be incorrect.
“The next theory was to try and run the pain out of it and give it a go. That didn’t work.
“I had to go and get university papers from the 1980’s on it, trying to read up and learn. It was a real low point.
“I had no other options than to have an operation, which one surgeon was keen to go ahead with. The bone where it was, it was quite a difficult procedure, and the surgeon was very straight with me, which I really appreciated.
“He said he’d done eight of them and three of them weren’t great afterwards. They had struggled.
“I loved that he was straight up. The other five had been okay: four involved in ballet and one rugby player. He hadn’t heard any complaints. But there was another rugby player who still had issues.”
Around the same time, Munster teammate Damien Varley, whom Ryan had played alongside in the 2002 Munster Schools Senior Cup final for St Munchin’s College, had been forced to retire at the age of 30 due to another foot issue – plantar fasciosis.
October 2014 saw Ryan go under the knife in London. As his particular injury concerned the lateral sesamoid bone, surgeons had to slice open the middle of his foot to remove it.
The aching pain was gone immediately when he woke up in his hospital bed. Months of rehab later and the “thumbtack sharp pain” had dissipated too. The burning sensation related to the nerve remained, however.
Ryan made his return in a red jersey against the Ospreys in Swansea in March 2015. A week later, he featured again off the replacement’s bench against Edinburgh in Murrayfield.
His first start since the injury coincidentally came against the side he’d injured it against, Treviso, on April 25 – 13 months, almost to the day, he felt like he’d stamped on an ice cube.
All was still not right though.
“I was still on the fence then – actually, I was still going to leave the sport at that time,” he admits.
“I was struggling badly and I’d developed a limp to protect it. My back and hip were in trouble because I was compensating.
“Playing for Munster is like a drug and when you’re caught up in an environment like that, you watch from the sideline and think: ‘God I wish that was me at the end of that ball’.
“But my nervous system was reacting with pain. I used to get massive anxiety because of it the whole time. I wasn’t sleeping.
“They had to give me some medication to help with that. My brain was firing with what wasn’t happening. We had to change the patterns.
“I was on that course for a long time. It wasn’t any performance enhancement things, that’s for sure. I was literally trying to relax the nerves.
“It was getting better and I could see progress. The only thing you ever want to see in that situation is progress. If you’re not seeing that, it’s a really tough place.
“My goal was I just wanted to play one more game after I had it done.”
Two 80 minute displays against Ulster and the Dragons followed before Munster qualified for the 2014/15 PRO12 semi-final against the Ospreys.
Sitting between Paul O’Connell and tighthead Stephen Archer pre-match, the word ironic flashes through Ryan’s mind
While taking medication to relax the nerve issue in his foot, the pre-match worries which had long beset him had eased. A fusion of relief and elation at just being able to suit up again:
“God almighty, this time last year I was nowhere next to near it,” he thinks.
Discomfort persisted though, and heading into the league final against Glasgow that year, retirement was still the most likely plan.
“We’d kind of agreed after that final I would finish up,” he says. “But I went away on holidays to Jamaica – I was still taking my medication – and I started being able to relax and properly switch off.
“Leading into the final, it was feeling better but it was all about seeing what it was like after rest. Because it was taking me a lot of work to keep on top of it and keep the pain down.
“Even when I was resting before, it wasn’t doing anything for it, it was still sore.
“Whereas when I had an opportunity to rest it over three weeks, rest really helped where previous times it didn’t, if that makes any sense at all. It was very strange but the process of my nerve system had changed.”
By August, Ryan, almost unbelievably, was back starting in a green jersey as he played for Ireland against Wales at the Millennium Stadium pre-World Cup.
Almost nobody who had watched on and supported him around Europe throughout the final three months of the season had any idea of the battle he had been enduring, nor the several points at which he came close to calling it quits.
“I came back into that Ireland camp and I felt very fresh,” he says. “Against Wales, the best thing was that my parents had gone over, and after everything, to have been able to get back to that top level, it was an emotional day almost.
“And I know it sounds ridiculous, but I didn’t really mind if I made that World Cup squad or not. The goal in my head had been: ‘I’d love to play just one more match’, and being in control and able to do that was great.
“The most interesting thing I learned from that whole experience was that doctors and physios don’t know it all. I would encourage every player, even though you don’t have a medical degree, to question an initial prognosis.
“It was the lowest and most frustrating period of my career. I’m so grateful to have had my family and girlfriend Jen pull me out of it.”
The second part of our interview with Donnacha Ryan where he chats about life in France, his late introduction to rugby, leaving Munster and fears for the future will be available from Thursday.