Originally published on March 29, 2019
Donnacha Ryan is more than settled into life in Paris at this stage. He has almost mastered the language, though his accent is still “appalling”, and he is enjoying his rugby as much as ever.
While the move of Simon Zebo to Racing 92 has brought with it another level of comfort for the Tipperary man off the field, his relationships with the other players have afforded him a brand new outlook on the game he has played professionally for 15 years.
During his opening years at the club, Ryan established a formidable second-row partnership with former European Player of the Year and Racing star, Leone Nakarawa.
Unsurprisingly, many former teammates approached Ryan looking for any hints or gems of information about the fitness and regime of the Fijian powerhouse but the answers aren’t exactly what you would expect.
“He trains the house down, very good work ethic, he just wants to play rugby and be happy all the time”, reveals Ryan.
“The lads are always asking about his diet so I asked him what his diet was. Leone is like 124kg and in good nick and he has a coffee in the morning, meal at lunchtime at the club, sometimes we have cake as well.
“I asked him what he eats when he goes home in the evening, ‘aahh I like to get a baguette and some jam’. ‘That’s it?’ I say, ‘you’re the European Player of the Year and you survive on bread and jam?’”
Nakarawa’s diet may seem unconventional, but it is nothing compared with the manner in which he was introduced to rugby. The Glasgow Warriors star returns to Fiji as often as he can and while he is there, he meets up with his friends to play rugby in the only way they know how.
“He’s like a rockstar back in Fiji. Because they won the gold in the 7s, he’s on the 7 dollar bill but he’s so ridiculously humble about it all.
“He said it’s the best time of the year to play rugby back home with his friends, especially when it’s wet, it’s the best time to play rugby with a coconut. They all play in their bare feet and they’d be throwing a coconut around.
“Some of the lads on the island, their feet and their speed would be way better than theirs because they’re just playing for fun which is just beautiful.”
There is no question of his talent as a player, but it was his attitude towards the game and to his fellow teammates that initially endeared Nakarawa to Ryan. Characters like him would be hard to come by in Munster, where the rugby culture differs slightly.
In Munster training, competition is just as intense as it would be during a real match. You need only read the autobiographies of any former player to realise how seriously they take any drill or training match. Therefore, it was hard for Ryan to adapt to the approach of the second-row who carries his friendly personality onto the pitch.
“He’s an unbelievable competitor, he just wants to be the best at everything, he competes all the time in training which is great but he has the nicest way of doing it.
“I found it very frustrating with him last year because in Munster and in Ireland, when it comes to things like lineouts, you wouldn’t want to give the opposition an edge, but Leone is so friendly and nice that he actually gives them the numbers as he walks up to the lineout and I’d be going ‘what the fuck are you doing, will you shut up!’ But he’s so sound.”