Dean Ryan: Kingsholm is where the heart is - but if England do call...

Former Army officer now leads operations at Gloucester's fortress. Tim Glover meets a tough player who became a visionary coach
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The Independent Online

Dean Ryan was not at Twickenham yesterday to watch the conclusion of England's autumn programme. Gloucester's West Country haymaker with Bristol on Friday night for the top of the Guinness Premiership meant that he had a rare free Saturday, and although he has a vested interest in the national cause, with the Red Rose recruiting heavily from Kingsholm, blood is thicker than water.

So Ryan watched his sons, Conor, 14, and 12-year-old Aaron, playing in the back row for Wycliffe College near Stroud. Like father, like sons. It is tempting to imagine that with Dean on the touchline any opposing parents would keep their opinions of Wycliffe to themselves.

At the age of 40, Ryan, along with his counterpart at Bristol, Richard Hill, is emerging as a coach to be reckoned with. As a player he was as combative a back-rower as ever earned a card, and is still fit enough to give most a run for their money. "I don't miss playing one little bit," he says. "I'm still getting the emotional highs and lows from the game without getting hurt in the process."

Many more highs. Ryan was named Premiership coach of the month for October in recognition of Gloucester's fine run but he is far too pragmatic, and sensible, to get carried away. He won't, for example, pose for a picture. If our photographer wants to click away during conversation that's fine. "I don't want to look like a right knob." No one in their right mind would suggest anything of the kind.

"Not everything is geared around winning and losing," he says, "just as long as we're heading in the right direction. If we'd lost four games, and we could have, our league position would be very different. As it is, it gives a lot of our young guys confidence." Through luck, judgement, coincidence and careful recruitment, Ryan has assembled a squad that contains the most exciting back line in England. The vast majority, led by Anthony Allen, are English and, in a league containing 17 nationalities, that is very good news for Twickenham. They have to be handled with kid's gloves, but their rate of progress has surprised and delighted many at Kingsholm.

"We have a unique opportunity here," Ryan says. "When I took the job on 18 months ago, I had a clear picture of Gloucester at the top end of things, but as for competing for full honours I didn't really believe we could deliver.

"I knew they had the ability but it would be a matter of time, if not year one then year three. We've had to strip a lot of that away. Last year we were four or five players short of what I wanted. We're still one or two short now and it's a question of finding the right person, creating a group that will stay together and share the same values. If we achieve that, we can raise the bar and realise expectations."

Despite losing up to half his team to Test calls, Ryan has kept Gloucester at the forefront and that, inevitably, at a time when the Rugby Football Union will conduct a review into England's status and decide whether Andy Robinson is the right man to lead the nation into the World Cup, has pushed his name into the national debate. "First of all, I love what I'm doing here, dealing with different types of people and creating an environment that works, not just for now but the future. I've busted my arse off to get into this position and I'm in the process of building something and so far we're only at the first floor. I wouldn't dream of leaving when we haven't even got the roof on. I'm seriously loving this."

Yes, but if England came calling? "I don't want to answer that because a line would appear out of context in another article and people wouldn't get the true picture. Besides which, Andy Robinson is in position at England and I wouldn't be happy if somebody said they wanted to coach Gloucester. Some of the things that I can bring to the table here wouldn't easily transfer to England. The job might seem the same but building relationships, understanding people and getting their trust would be much more difficult."

Through Gloucester's international supply line Ryan is in touch with Robinson, and as for Rob Andrew, England's elite director, the two go way back. When Andrew was hired by Sir John Hall in 1995 to take Newcastle into the professional world he did so by assembling one of the meanest pack of forwards in the business. That included taking Ryan, ex-Army - his father, Matthew, was a major in the Royal Corps of Transport - from Wasps to Tyneside.

From there he moved to Bristol as player-coach before succeeding Bob Dwyer as director of rugby, and settled in Gloucester in 2001, taking over as head coach from Nigel Melville in the summer of 2005. "I don't know enough about England to go into detail but I know that Rob will have a very clear picture of where he wants England to be. He will not allow obstacles to stand in his way. I know him well enough to say he is very focused and driven.

"This is a tremendously difficult time for England because of the huge weight of expectation as a result of winning the World Cup. Whether the current group are capable of fulfilling the legacy, it's difficult to say. They're not as stable and they don't have as many world-class players. Perhaps they're too weighed down by what happened in 2003 to be allowed to grow. Take Charlie Hodgson. He's an outstanding player but he didn't show the form of the man we see in the Premiership. Those in charge have to find out why and remove the barriers.

"Is it totally the fault of the coaches? I don't think so. There have also been a lot of injuries and there's not enough experience there. For whatever reason they're probably not equipped to carry it off, and in World Cup terms it's too late to talk about a development programme. At some point they'll have to say, 'This is where we'll be in three years' time'. Another factor is the pressure of business, and if that's detrimental to the product they'll have to be very careful."

Was Ryan happy that Allen played for England in the defeats to New Zealand and Argentina and was then sent back to Kingsholm? "Only if he wasn't used as a stopgap and that he will appear again in Test matches. I think he'll have an international future and I see no reason why he shouldn't feature in the World Cup. For two weeks he was the first-choice centre in England. He knows that in some aspects of his game he could have done better, but at 20 you don't want to wrap yourself in those things. It was an emotional rollercoaster but you can't not enjoy it, and he showed things he can do which others can't and that's a massive start."

When Ryan says he is as happy as a pig in clover at Kingsholm it is not difficult to see why. At the ground a new stand has increased capacity to 13,000 and there are plans to take it to 18,000. Then there's the Shed which, on match days, is full of the best supporters money can't buy. This is a rugby club in a rugby city with a squad to be proud of.

"It's a fantastic environment and when you've got the crowd behind you, you know you belong. They're good readers of personalities and if somebody is not here for the right reasons they're made aware that they're in the wrong place. The supporters expect success and we share their ambition. Locally everything we do is back-page news. I've spent a lot of my career playing in front of 300 people. This is the real thing."

Ryan even has a good relationship with Tom Walkinshaw, the Premiership bruiser recently compared, by the RFU, to Stalin. "The worst thing is when an owner wants success next week. All I can say is that Tom is tremendously supportive of what we're trying to do and I couldn't ask for more. He fronts up and is aware of our agenda."

Ryan has put together an impressive back-up team including Bryan Redpath, the former Scotland scrum-half, as backs coach, Denis Betts, the former Wigan and GB second row, for skills and development and Mike Anthony, ex-All Blacks conditioner, in charge of fitness. With Anthony he shares a passion for cycling, and Ryan takes it to extremes by competing in L'Etape, a stage of the Tour de France which is open to amateurs. Ryan prepares by cycling up Cleeve Hill in the Cotswolds, which has a 1,000-foot climb. He filmed a motivational DVD on the hill; less Saving Private Ryan, more acclimatising Gloucester for the long, steep haul.

"Everything I do," says Ryan, who spent seven years in the Army having joined as a teenager, "is done for a reason. I'm very, very competitive. As a player I was successful in terms of captaincy. You've got to keep adapting or you'll lose their willingness to listen."

Who knows, in future World Cups, if not the next one, Ryan might be promoted to England's field marshal, and Conor and Aaron could be following in his footsteps.

Life & Times: Leading from the back row

NAME Dean Ryan.

BORN 22 June 1966, Tuxford, Nottinghamshire.

VITAL STATS 6ft 6in, 17st.

POSITION No 8/blindside flanker.

CLUB CAREER Saracens, Wasps (captain), Newcastle (Premiership winners as captain, 1997-98), Bristol (captain).

ENGLAND CAREER Debut versus Argentina '90. Six caps; recalled against Scotland in '98 after a five-and-a-half-year absence. Led England A and Emerging Players.

COACHING CAREER Bristol 2000-02 (Premiership finalists '02). Gloucester '02-current; Powergen Cup-winners, Premiership finalists '03 (topped division). Appointed head coach '05. Premiership coach of the month, October '06.