Paddy Ryan’s Forward of the Year Campaign
It takes a different kind of person to willingly want to run into a hard-charging Samu Manoa, but Paddy Ryan, San Diego Legion prop and Major League Rugby’s 2019 Forward of the Year, is that type of person.
He’s a forward’s forward.
“What do I enjoy the most? Certainly, the physical side of things,” Ryan said of his favorite part about playing rugby. “I enjoy running the ball. Tackling. I enjoy the physical battle. I enjoy coming up against guys who are physically opposing.”
Manoa certainly fits the mold of a physically opposing player. Luckily for Ryan, and rugby fans everywhere, the two met in the MLR Championship at Torero Stadium in June.
“He’s a big boy and he hits hard,” Ryan said of Manoa. “I think one my favorite guys that I played against all year, obviously there were some great players around the league, guys such as Brad Tucker and Dylan Fawsitt over in New York but playing against Samu Manoa in that last game. That’s cool. That guy’s been European Player of the Year a couple of times. They’re the kind of guys that you enjoy playing against because when you run into them they knew what they’re doing. Even though he’s got a bit of a knee that holds him back a bit, he still hits like a freight train. That’s the part of the game I enjoy the most. They’re the kind of guys you enjoy playing against.”
Ryan is also a big boy who hits hard and hits often. Opposing players likely think of Ryan in the same light that he thinks of Manoa.
He made the decision to roll the dice and jump on a plane to San Diego to join the Legion as they embarked on the journey that was the MLR’s second season. As Ryan explained, the 31-year-old forward was ready for a change after his time with the New South Wales Waratahs of Super Rugby.
“I was just a little bit lost in terms of what I wanted to do with my rugby,” Ryan said of his decision to join the Legion. “I played at the club that I grew up supporting for about 10 years, but I knew I wanted to do something different, but I wasn’t really sure. I had explored Europe as an option, but it wasn’t really working for me. It wasn’t really doing anything for me.”
Ryan’s desire to spread his wings and try something new led him to an airport lounge where he bumped into Scott Wisemantel.
“He said, ‘Hey mate would you consider doing this?’ and I said ‘Yeah, certainly,’” Ryan said. “I kind of sent an email out to all the clubs and spoke to a couple briefly. I spoke directly to one of the owners in San Diego, Darren Gardner, who is also an Australian. Once I had spoken to him it was done. It was pretty much done on the spot.”
After falling 38-24 to the eventual MLR Champion Seattle Seawolves in the semifinal round of the Inaugural Season, the addition of Ryan was exactly what San Diego needed heading into Year 2.
“I remember the first year we played our first game against Seattle in Seattle,” Legion inside center JP du Plessis said of the difference Ryan made. “I remember they scored I think two or three penalty tries and that is actually a great example of where we started and where we are now. A massive, massive credit can go to Paddy for that.”
According to du Plessis and head coach Rob Hoadley, Ryan was the leader the Legion needed to solidify their forward pack. Between his experience, personality, and will to win, he took it upon himself to get the team moving in the right direction while also making sure he did so at the correct pace.
“The way he went about doing it was to come in and be a complete team man and be open to everything we were doing because he’s come from an incredible background,” Hoadley explained. “He’s a Super Rugby winner, he’s an Australian international. I think he came in at first quietly to sort of suss the place out and get a feel for the place rather than just trying to stamp his authority first. His authority came through naturally. He’s a born leader and the guys really gravitated towards him. Obviously technically and physically, he had so much to offer and to teach our young front row and he really took them under his wing. I think that the tough edge that he brought, our young front row really took that on board, and they enjoyed that aspect of working with Paddy.”
“The effort and time that he put into the other players I think was the difference,” du Plessis said of his teammate. “I mean he speaks for himself with the way he plays.”
In the ultimate team sport, Ryan was the ultimate team man. He understood what he was brought in to do and did whatever he could to help the team win games. His ability to consistently put together quality performances completely provided the Legion with the tools they needed to take the next step in their evolution as a club.
“Obviously you talk to blokes about what it was like in 2018 but I wasn’t there so it’s really hard to comment on how far we may or may not have come,” Ryan said. “I think alternately to win the competition and to win big games you have to have a forward pack that’s prepared to beat the opposition up and get the whole team going forward to make sure that guys like Joe Pietersen and Mikey Te’o and Nate Augspurger are getting good, clean balls. That’s what we need to be doing is getting those guys a bit of space and some good ball to play with. I think for most of the year we probably did that.”
After getting settled into his new home with his new team, Ryan went to work. Once he stepped foot on the pitch, he began to produce. After the Legion dropped a 25-23 nail biter to Rugby United New York at home to open the season, they buckled down and rattled off four-straight victories heading into their first bye week of the season. Over that four-match winning streak, Ryan carried the ball 36 times for 208 meters and made 33 tackles while only missing two. His performance over the first five weeks of the season saw him land on the MLR’s First XV team four times. Ryan finished the season with 11 First XV selections at tighthead prop, more than any other player in the competition at any other position.
“A lot of the wins early were kind of grinding them out a bit and blokes were really just playing to win,” Ryan said. “Houston at home, Utah at home. Big grinds. Guys doing unselfish things on the field that meant a lot to the team and perhaps weren’t the easiest options. When I look back, we built a lot out of that.”
After their first bye week of the season, San Diego dropped a 27-20 match to the Toronto Arrows at home before scoring a try in the final minute of their next match, which ended in a 28-28 draw with the Glendale Raptors on the road, before heading into their second bye week. In two matches where the Legion didn’t play up to their potential, Ryan did. He carried the ball 27 times for 131 meters while also making 29 tackles.
The Legion would go on to win eight of their final nine games to close out the regular season and secure the top seed headed into the MLR Championship Series. Ryan carried the ball 37 times for 227 tough meters and a try while also making 90 of the 180 tackles that he finished the season with during that span. Ryan’s physicality and his consistency paid huge dividends and helped the Legion get ready to make the final push for their ultimate goal.
“I think it’s rare to see the physicality show through in so many different aspects because I think sometimes when you get a big, physical forward, they’re physical in one aspect or another,” Hoadley said of Ryan. “Obviously his scrum is physical. He was unreal in the carry but also, he had one of the highest number of carries. Not only a hard carry now and again but carrying more than everyone else and carrying harder. His tackling, some of his double tackling and his dominant tackles, he was right up there. When you look at his stats across the board, he was demonstrating physicality right across the board which is very rare by a prop who is expending so much energy in the tight. It is the physicality, but it’s complete work capacity to keep punctuating it that way.”
“Many times in a game, let’s say for instance you are down, or something happened, it’s that one tackle that he makes that’s dominant or that one run that Paddy makes that dominant that brings that energy back into the team,” du Plessis said of Ryan.
Ryan was built for playoff rugby. Whether the Legion needed some tough meters or a tackle, they could count on Ryan. In their semifinal match against Rugby United New York, Ryan punched in a try on one of the three carries he had for 12 meters and made 13 tackles to help the Legion win 24-22 in an instant classic that punched their ticket to the MLR Championship match.
It’s a good thing that the physical aspect of rugby is Ryan’s favorite part of the game because that’s exactly what the MLR Championship consisted of. Ryan finished the match with 11 carries for 50 meters and made all five of his tackles in a heartbreaking last-minute loss to the defending champions, Seattle Seawolves.
Despite not ending the season with the MLR Championship Shield, the physicality and consistency that Ryan played with all season combined with the work he did to transform the Legion’s forward pack into one of the best in the competition is what earned him Forward of the Year honors. Whether it was through his bruising runs, dominant tackles or his guidance, Ryan made the Legion better in 2019.
“Paddy is very dry,” Hoadley said with a laugh. “He’ll put you in your place pretty quickly. He’s got a great sense of humor, but at his heart, he’s just a team man. He goes out of his way to make everyone feel comfortable. He’s tough, no-nonsense, uncompromising, but everything he does is in the best interest of the group. He’s been a great bloke to have around.”
“Just to give you a basic summary, since the first day he got there, he basically took it upon himself to bring the guys in – especially the front-rowers – just bringing them in, just saying, ‘After gym, let’s do some extras. Let’s do these exercises. Let’s try these core exercises. Let’s do these technique exercises,’” du Plessis explained. “Also, off-field, he’s much older than a lot of the guys on the team but he just kind of pulled them in and related to them and created bonds with them. That was also something that I think played a pivotal role in the success of not only the forward pack but the entire team and the club in general.”
Ryan knows about as well as anybody that wins, and losses come as a team. When everyone does their job, everyone gets rewarded and he feels like being recognized as MLR’s 2019 Forward of the Year is no different.
“It was an honor,” Ryan said of winning the award. “It was great. It’s sort of a great award for not really me, but sort of the whole pack. I think when someone from your forward pack gets an award like that, you’ve all contributed and everyone’s sort of done their job. You know the MLR has to pick someone out. I think it was a great award for the whole pack that worked hard. I’m proud to get it, really, and a bit surprised and very happy.”
Colton can be reached at email@example.com.
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