PJ Ryan - Kilkenny's keeper of the flame
By John Harrington
Not long after Paul O’Connell famously ripped his hamstring off the bone in Ireland’s 2015 Rugby World Cup victory over France, former Kilkenny goalkeeper PJ Ryan suffered the very same injury to much less fanfare.
And, just like O’Connell, the injury spelled the end of Ryan’s playing career too.
That sort of physical trauma tends to leave a psychological impact, and even though his body eventually mended itself after surgery and a long rehab, the memory of the moment his hurling career ended still replays vividly in Ryan's memory.
“I was down training one Sunday morning and I went to tear off with the ball and the hamstring ripped off the bone and that finished that,” Ryan told GAA.ie.
“It was the sorest thing ever. I've broken my arm and broken fingers and toes and whatnot, but I never felt pain like this before in my life.
“I was in a cast for five months. What they do is they put you in cast and set it at 60 degrees and leave you in it for a couple of months. Then they drop it down to 30 degrees and then they drop it down again until it's fully straightened out.
“It was horrific at the time, I have to say.”
If Ryan describes a pain as horrific, then you know you’re talking about something serious.
This is a man, after all, who played in the 2007 All-Ireland Final for Kilkenny against Limerick just four weeks after breaking his arm in the All-Ireland semi-final victory over Wexford.
It looked like his All-Ireland Final dream was surely over when he suffered the injury, but having been a back-up goalkeeper to James McGarry for so long he was determined nothing would stop him from experiencing the big day.
“I went down and got an operation on it and they inserted a plate into my arm," said Ryan. "I think the plate was a lot bigger than the normal one that would go in because I'd say Dr. Tadhg O'Sullivan knew I was going to chance playing no matter what happened.
“In fairness to Tadhg, he did the operation and got me right for the day. I didn't do a whole lot coming up to the match but the week before I was back doing a few drills and back hurling the games in training.
“Look, it worked out in the end. Would I recommend it to anyone? I don't know. But if I had my time again I'd probably do the same thing.”
Ryan, now 40, would still be playing club hurling for Fenians were it not for that ripped hamstring, but his enforced retirement has served to accelerate his coaching career.
He first started down that path when he went back to College to complete a BA in Sport and Exercise from IT Carlow and then followed that up with a degree in Sports Management Coaching.
Davy Fitzgerald must have liked what he heard about Ryan on the coaching grapevine, because after being appointed Wexford hurling team manager he brought in Ryan as his goalkeeper coach.
“It was a great experience,” said Ryan. “I have to say I enjoyed my time down there an awful lot. They made me fierce welcome down there and working with Davy gave me a great insight.
“When I was playing hurling with Kilkenny all we used to have to do was turn up to training and train, so to see the organisation that goes into preparing a team was a real eye-opener.
“Working up close with Davy himself and JJ Doyle, Páraic Fanning and Seoirse Bulfin and Keith Rossiter, these are top-class man. I learned a whole lot from those lads last year.
“They're knocking on the door and will be knocking on the door as well this year.”
Ryan isn’t involved with Wexford this year because his own native county came calling and appointed him as their new Games Development Administrator.
He started on January 15 and is hugely enthusiastic about his new role.
“It's a dream job," he said. "I went back to College in 2009 down in IT Carlow to do the sport and exercise degree with the aim of hopefully getting in as a GDA somewhere along the line.
“And while it didn't happen straight away, it happened this year and I'm delighted it did happen.
“Look, nothing will ever surpass playing. Even on the sideline now I still think I could go in and do a job there. But coaching is the next best thing.
“I’m involved with our own club at home too and when you work on something in training and you see it coming off in the matches and you see lads responding to you and doing well then it gives you a great deal of satisfaction."
One of the main reasons for Kilkenny’s dominance of hurling in the past couple of decades has been the county’s superbly run coaching structures.
They were ahead of the curve in that regard for a long time and it’s only in recent years that many of their rivals have started to catch up.
The club-school links in Kilkenny are very healthy and the impact made by secondary school hurling nurseries like St. Kieran’s College and Kilkenny CBS is hugely influential too.
There’s no danger of them resting on their laurels and simply relying on tradition to keep them at the forefront of the game. In fact, they’re utilising technology to help ensure they stay one step ahead of every other county.
“There's tremendous work going on in Kilkenny all the time and long before I got involved,” said Ryan.
“The likes of Brian Ryan, Sean Kelly and James Meagher are doing huge work and then the amount of volunteers that are putting their shoulder to the wheel in Kilkenny is second to none.
“But, yeah, look, you have to keep on top of things. Even now at the moment Kilkenny Coaching and Games have developed an app call 'The Hurler'.
“At the moment the club coaching coordinator and club coaches use the app. It's an age specific app so for u-7s there would be specific skill and fitness tests as well as suitable sample training sessions.
“And then for U-9 and U-13 and the whole way up along to adult teams you'd also have specific tests and sessions.
“It's a huge resource and a great coaching tool to give your coaches a helping hand and to enhance their sessions.
“The coaches test their players at a certain time of the year and your players get a gold, silver or bronze trophy depending on their score and you can also compare how you're doing against the rest of the county.
“It's a great app and a great resource for the coaches to have and we're the first county in the country to have that facility available to us.
“So while lads might say that Kilkenny don't do tactics and whatever, we're certainly leading the pack that way.”
Such has been Kilkenny’s dominance of the game in recent years, that the fact they’ve now gone two years in a row without winning the Liam MacCarthy Cup is deemed by some as a mini-crisis.
Ryan isn’t concerned though about the health of the game in the county in the short, medium, or long-term, and is determined to play his part in the county’s continued success.
“Kilkenny will always have hurlers because it’s the main game within the county,” he said.
“While they didn't win an All-Ireland for the past couple of years, they're still knocking on the door.
“And as you've seen in the League this year the improvement made by the team from the start of the League until now is immense.
“I suppose for a team that was written off earlier on in the year, they're back in the hunt for being one of the favourites for the All-Ireland.
“Look, Kilkenny will always have hurlers. It's our job to try to develop all the hurlers as best we can and to improve all of the players that we come into contact with. Simple as that.
“If we could develop the player pathway and bring the majority of players from Under 8s or Under-10s up to being adult players in the club and if we could increase participation levels to make it fun and enjoyable for our players then we'll have achieved an awful lot.”