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End of an era as Ryan waves farewell to beloved Munster



Last stand: Donnacha Ryan, who is moving to Racing after the PRO12 final, salutes the Thomond Park crowd

Last stand: Donnacha Ryan, who is moving to Racing after the PRO12 final, salutes the Thomond Park crowd

©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Last stand: Donnacha Ryan, who is moving to Racing after the PRO12 final, salutes the Thomond Park crowd

The esteem in which Donnacha Ryan is held in Munster was perhaps best summed up by Anthony Foley this time two years ago.

Paul O'Connell had called time on his Munster career and Foley was left with the unenviable task of attempting to find a replacement, or so it seemed.

"When I worked with Ireland a season or two ago, when he (O'Connell) got injured, Donnacha Ryan stepped in and did a very good job," Foley said.

"So there's no question that he can do a job for Munster in that kind of role. But it will be a Donnacha Ryan role, not a Paul O'Connell role."

And that is exactly what has happened in the two seasons since - the 'Donnacha Ryan role' was created, and how he has thrived with the added responsibility on his shoulders.

The thing about Ryan is, he has never tried to be O'Connell, but having bided his time for so long behind the former Ireland skipper, Donncha O'Callaghan and Mick O'Driscoll, he was always being primed to eventually take over the mantle.

That said, stepping into those kind of shoes was even more unenviable than Foley trying to find a replacement, but since O'Connell hung up his boots, Ryan has grown into a real leader, both on and off the pitch.

That Ryan was an unused sub in Munster's 2008 Heineken Cup final success would go some way to explaining why his winners' medal hasn't meant that much to him until recently.

Munster haven't managed to get back on top of Europe since, and Ryan has been at the forefront of their relentless pursuit of former glories.

To add a third PRO12 medal to his collection would be the icing on the cake. "I spent my whole adult life playing with Munster," Ryan said last week as he did his best to avoid the adulation that was pouring out from the terraces at Thomond Park. "I have known nothing else. I got to play with my heroes growing up."

Next season he will embark on a new challenge and it is one that, in truth, has been on the cards for some time.

The important thing to remember about Ryan's impending move to Racing is that the IRFU's decision not to renew his central contract has by no means forced him to leave the country.

Munster offered a fresh deal but it was dwarfed by what the French club put on the table.

Prior to Ryan signing a three-year deal late in 2013, he had flirted with the idea of a new challenge abroad. Back then, Perpignan and Northampton were amongst the clubs sniffing around but he opted to stay put.

However, with the IRFU signalling the end of his international career at 47 caps, now is the time for the 33-year old to try something new. And why not?

Ryan is the last of the old breed at Munster and his exit signals the end of an era that has brought huge success. Three years ago, he said: "You need to have a good appreciation of what it means to wear the red jersey."

When he takes off the famous shirt for the 167th and final time tomorrow, he can do so with his head held high at having given everything he has.

Belfast Telegraph