Ryan ready to take a hard line

The Roy Keane of rugby finds he is a marked man as he succeeds a World Cup winner
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There may be one or two classic symptoms of delusions of persecution but Dean Ryan has neither the time nor the inclination to entertain thoughts of paranoia. It's mostly our fault, and maybe he has a point.

There may be one or two classic symptoms of delusions of persecution but Dean Ryan has neither the time nor the inclination to entertain thoughts of paranoia. It's mostly our fault, and maybe he has a point.

When Roy Keane got sent off in the Charity Shield final last Sunday, it was tempting to think of him as the Dean Ryan of the Premiership or vice-versa. Short hair, short fuses, hard men, light the blue touch paper and run like hell. Even before the Premiership's official release of adrenalin, Keane got a red card, but he wasbeaten by a short head to silly season notoriety by Ryan.

The Bristol player-coach had already been sent off in a pre-season friendly at Caerphilly. He walked after receiving two yellow cards. Then in another friendly against Newport he got another lecture and another card. It is rare for cards to be issued in "friendly" matches, and even rarer for action to be taken, and for one player to get three in two games is possibly a record.

Keane's premature departure at Wembley was his seventh sending off. As for Ryan, he too had previous, but not as long as his arm. "That was the first time I've ever been sent off," he said of the Caerphilly incident. If he was waiting for an incredulous reaction, he was not disappointed. He expects nothing less.

"Each issue should be dealt with on its merits and should be detached from anything else but that isn't the case," he said. "There's an easy route to take, namely Dean Ryan's guilty again."

At a hearing on 30 August, before a Welsh Rugby Union disciplinary panel, Ryan is pleading not guilty to everything. He has studied the videos from Caerphilly, where he was alleged to have struck somebody with his knee in a ruck, and Newport, where he was seen "swinging an arm" at an opponent, and has consulted Bristol's solicitor.

"I'm contesting both decisions," he said. "When they happened they filled the back pages. If I get off it'll make one line." You wouldn't want to argue with this huge figure in T-shirt and shorts sitting in his new office in a commercial estate on the outskirts of Bristol. And he's not best pleased.

"I'm furious about the environment we were forced to play in at Caerphilly," he says. "It was supposed to be an important game time but we could not achieve anything we wanted to." What did Caerphilly think about this? "I have no idea. We won the game and got out. In the Premiership I have every confidence in the referees."

If Ryan had never been sent off before, how come he's got a record? The record in question was a contender for the Guinness Book when, playing for Newcastle in 1998 in the season's opener against Bath, he had a disagreement with Nathan Thomas, the Bath flanker. Thomas was sent off and Ryan got a yellow card. That should have been the end of the matter but Cliff Brittle, the then president of the Rugby Football Union, watching the game on television, cited Ryan, who had to appear before a RFU panel, despite the fact that the laws did not allow the recipient of a yellow card to be cited. The matter subsequently went before a High Court judge. No action was taken against Ryan.

"I'm not denying that I have contributed to my reputation," he said. "But it becomes very easy to create something when my name is attached to it without really looking at the facts."

This is not how Ryan wanted to start the season, particularly in his new role. He has taken over the direction of Bristol from Bob Dwyer, Australia's former World Cup winning coach who has taken up a post with the New South Wales Waratahs. Today, Ryan will be in the second row as Bristol take on Rotherham, the Zurich Premiership newcomers, at Clifton Lane.

Last season Bristol faded in the final furlong, losing in the semi-finals of the Tetley's Bitter Cup and missing a place by the narrowest margin in the Heineken Cup. They have lost not only Dwyer but Henry Honiball, the South African stand-off, whose career has been curtailed by a neck injury.

Ryan has been "delighted" to have recruited the centre Leigh Davies from Cardiff, the back-row forward Ben Sturnham from Bath and the hooker Neil McCarthy from Gloucester. He appears to have bought well. They all got together at a six-day camp in New Orleans where Bristol played Wasps in an exhibition match. Garath Archer, the England lock, led the West Country club against Wasps but against Rotherham Agustin Pichot, the garrulous Argentine scrum-half, is the captain. Ryan will not appoint a captain for the season. "I want to spread the load," he said. "We didn't have a club captain last season. I just happened to lead the team whenever I played."

The 34-year-old Ryan spent two years at Saracens and seven at Wasps before Rob Andrew made him player-coach of Newcastle when the game went open and Sir John Hall in effect bought the north-east club. Newcastle, who achieved instant success by gaining promotion and winning the Premiership, have been surviving without Sir John's millions - he cut his losses after three years - and without Ryan who moved his family to Bristol 18 months ago.

Some believe it is unwise to attempt to combine the dual role of player-coach. "It depends on the individual," Ryan said. "I've been coaching for 12 years, and been captaining sides for 10 years. I have a lot to say and I need to have control over my ideas. Everything comes through me and I'm now under intense scrutiny. I'm not interested in personal titles and whether I play or not is irrelevant. My only concern is finding the best way to move Bristol forward."

At times there was a collision of wills between Dwyer and Ryan at the Memorial Ground. "We were prepared to say what we thought but it didn't go any further. We had our disagreements but it was a very open relationship." Jack Rowell is still a director of the club. "It's fantastic to have a man of that experience who I can bounce ideas off. The key is to get the right formula. We are capable of beating anybody, but whether we have the depth only time will tell. That may haunt us."

Ryan has played at Rotherham before. "It's a small pitch and a difficult and intense place to go. It's not easy getting out of the second division and their achievement over the years has been fantastic. They will have everything to prove and getting them first up is one of the hardest ways to start the season. We're going into an alien environment and we have to be completely in the right frame of mind. We have to make sure that none of the outside factors influence the players."

Bristol are not new to dogfights, having been on the bad and good ends of Premiership play-offs in recent years, but for the journey to Yorkshire they could have done with Archer's yeoman service. Ryan was disturbed to discover that Archer, who picked up a yellow card in the last game of the season against Saracens, his third of the campaign, has been suspended from the start of the new season. "Apparently there's a knock-on effect and it's caught everyone by surprise," Ryan said. This brings him back to his marked-man theory.

"Some of Archer's yellow cards were ludicrous," he said. "He got one against Gloucester for pushing a player away. If it had been anybody else nothing would have happened. The rules should be the same for everybody but I believe he was singled out because he's Garath Archer. It's unjustified.

"I have been doing this for 14 years and I am getting too old to worry about what people say about me but Garath has a tremendous future and we want to see him fulfil his potential." It is not true that Bristol are playing in hair shirts this season.