Rugby Union: Ryan prepares to bare his teeth

The fearsome reputation of Bristol's new player-coach is poised to wake a sleeping giant.
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DEAN RYAN, the big bad wolf of the Allied Dunbar Premiership, splits popular rugby union opinion neatly down the middle. Those who see the former England No 8 merely as a hard, ruthless son of a gun who spends his Saturday afternoons treading a very fine line between the barely acceptable and the downright illegal can almost be classed as members of the Ryan fan club, for the rest are far more judgemental. As one leading coach put it last season: "If the jury are still out on Dean, it's only because they're frightened to come back in." Charming.

To be sure, the man raises more eyebrows in the average grass-roots clubhouse than Lawrence Dallaglio and Will Carling combined; by comparison, Martin Johnson is the Virgin Mary of British forward play. Referees love the "other Deano" in the way mountaineers love Everest: that is to say, they cherish him as a challenge. ("Why do we referee him? Because he's there.") In an important Newcastle match the season before last, a respected match official glanced briefly at a semi-conscious Ryan spread-eagled on the grass following a particularly heavy double tackle and staggered a member of the opposition by saying: "That's one problem I haven't got, then."

Yet he flatly refuses to live down to his reputation. He may be what seasoned rugby followers euphemistically describe as a handful, but he is many other things too: an acute thinker, an outstanding motivator, a radical and influential tactician and, in all probability, a Test-class coach in the making. His latest club, Bristol, have reeled in some mighty big fish during the last few months - Henry Honiball, Frank Bunce, Agustin Pichot, David Rees and Garath Archer would look good in anyone's landing net, as would Jamie Mayer, Spencer Brown and Adam Vander - but, according to a straw poll of those in the know, the real catch was Ryan himself.

Having played a central role in the Wasps uprising of the mid-1990s and contributed equally significantly to the Newcastle rebellion that brought Premiership glory to Kingston Park two seasons ago, the 33-year-old back- row enforcer now finds himself at the heart of perhaps the most sweeping revolution yet seen in the short history of professional club rugby. As player-coach at the Memorial Ground, he is working hand in glove with Bob Dwyer, the track-suited legend from Wallaby country. Assuming Bristol turns out to be a big enough town for the both of them, tomorrow night's Premiership curtain-raiser against Bedford could signal the start of something special.

"Because of the World Cup and its claims on so many Premiership players, including several of our own, we are in a uniquely complex situation," said Ryan this week as the remnants of his squad drifted into Combe Dingle, the superbly appointed Bristol University sports ground, for training. "The season is really divided into two halves, both of them bringing their own particular problems. First up, we need to win early matches without our World Cup players. Then, when the internationals get here, we need to pull all the strands together and find our feet quickly. We're talking about quality players here, players with imagination; it will be a case of squaring their ideas with ours, of finding some common ground, of arriving at a cohesive approach."

Fortunately for Bristol, Ryan has spent much of his career in the sporting laboratory and has a track record of successful experimentation. Along with Rob Andrew, he took the high-energy Wasps vintage of 1994-95 down the road of total rugby a full year before Laurie Mains and Sean Fitzpatrick did the same thing with the All Blacks. "Some of the rugby we saw in South Africa during the 1994 England tour inspired us to push our game beyond the commonly accepted boundaries," he recalled. "It wasn't necessarily the right way to go about winning, but the whole point of the exercise was to take everything to extremes, just to see what was possible. Understanding what couldn't be achieved was every bit as important as understanding what could. I'd like to see Bristol play with some of that spirit, as long as it is tempered with a little realism."

When Ryan followed Andrew to Sir John Hall's Newcastle in the autumn of 1995, he was at the cutting edge once again; not so much tactically, but professionally. "There were a lot of good people there - Rob, Steve Bates and Steve Black, who is now enjoying such success with Wales - and, in my opinion, we were a long way ahead of the field in terms of our vision. People think we came by our Premiership title by accident; they assume that because we had been promoted the previous season, we took the rest by surprise. It was no accident. We had a bloody good set-up and we worked until we dropped."

So why did Ryan turn his back on Kingston Park midway through last season and head straight for the bedside of English rugby's most notoriously lazy sleeping giant? "A number of reasons, actually. There was always going to be a point when three strong characters like Rob, Steve Bates and myself were going to separate. It simply wasn't viable to have us all there indefinitely. And anyway, things were not as secure as they had been the previous season, what with Sir John wavering in his commitment to the club. I felt I was in limbo, and limbo is no place to be when you have a wife and family to think about, a mortgage to pay.

"To be honest with you, I was pretty scarred by what happened at Newcastle last season. I felt the players, myself included, were left high and dry; we'd held up our end of the bargain by winning the Premiership, but it slowly dawned on us that other people were not willing to hold up their end. It was massively demotivating and anti-climactic to be part of a champion club one moment, only to find your contract, your very livelihood, under threat the next. I looked at Bristol and thought: `There's a genuinely big club with enormous potential. As long as I do my job, I won't be left high and dry there.'

"I don't think someone like Bob Dwyer would be involved to the extent he is if this was anything but a serious venture. Bristol is a massive club in terms of potential, far bigger than anything I've experienced before. When we played Cardiff in a pre-season friendly the other day, the best part of 4,000 turned up to watch. That is new ground for me, I can tell you. Both Bob and I are on a long road here, but if we get it right, as I'm confident we will, Bristol will be back on the map."

This time, it seems, Ryan considers himself on board for the duration - he has just bought a house in Tetbury, deep in Gloucestershire's fishin', huntin' and shootin' country. "The first property I looked at was right opposite Prince Charles' place at Highgrove, and one of the perks was a royal invitation at Christmas," he laughed. "I eventually decided against buying the place, but I can't help wondering what poor old Charlie would have said if he'd seen me on his doorstep as he arrived home from church." Something extremely polite, if he had any sense.