Sudbury's Deano emerging from the shade

Steve Bale talks about the burdens of carrying an unwanted reputation to the man who will lead Wasps in tomorrow's Pilkington Cup final against Bath
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On the one hand, Dean Ryan has a reputation to live down. On the other, he has a reputation to live up to. Your perception depends on whether or not you are a Wasp but no player has done more than the Wasps captain to take the north London club into English rugby's top three - and specifically to tomorrow's Pilkington Cup final against Bath at Twickenham.

In his own robust fashion Wasps' Deano is the Sudbury equivalent of his Leicester namesake and it is only because they are a more decorous and less overtly impassioned bunch at Wasps that Ryan's prefix does not get the same soccer-chant treatment as Richards' at Welford Road. If there can be such a thing down the leafier back-streets of the borough of Brent, Deano - Ryan, that is - is also an icon.

But a cup final before 60,000 people, the next best thing to the international stage he last fleetingly trod in 1992, is a test of temperament as well as talent. As Ryan himself accepts, he has an unenviable reputation and this is the time for him to prove he really can combine passion with personal discipline.

Not, of course, that the Wasps captain and No 8 believes he has been fairly treated in this regard. "I certainly don't proclaim innocence; I can hardly sit here and defend myself," he said, though at his desk at a bank headquarters in Bracknell, Berkshire, he is the very picture of innocence.

"But elements of my reputation are undeserved. People's perception of what I'm liable to do is completely wrong and they do have a tendency to jump on the bandwagon and have a go at me without looking across at what is happening elsewhere, at what others might be involved in. Perhaps I am unjustly singled out now and then."

This, if we are to believe Ryan, is giving a dog a bad name but it is a fact that he has consistently been reproved by referees and even when supposedly setting an example as captain he has never been known for exercising great restraint. "In the intensity of a game, sometimes there is no thinking period," he confessed.

"You question yourself and ask why it happened but I think everyone would admit to sitting back after a game and saying to himself he shouldn't have done something. I regret some incidents - or I regret them at the time, some of them anyway. But I have no regrets in the sense that there has never been a massive intent on my part to do anything that's out of order."

This is the nearest you will get to a mea culpa from Ryan, who has lived with "people's perception" since he went on England's tour of Argentina in 1990 and had no compunction about taking the fight to the locals. In some ways, it was a question of survival but at least one English rugby big-wig, Mickey Steele-Bodger, told radio listeners back home that this man should never play for England again.

In fact Ryan went on to play in both Tests in Buenos Aires, flanked by the dynamic duo of Skinner and Winterbottom, and was one of the few to emerge with any credit from a calamitous tour. He won a third cap on the blind side when England played Canada at Wembley in 1992 but since then his representative recognition has been lower-grade, leadership of the Emerging England side who went close to the '93 All Blacks showing he was not quite forgotten.

The truth is that Ryan gave up on his England ambition - in the sense of worrying about it - long ago, and far from seeing three caps as a paltry reward for long years of consistency he is glad to have won those, given the quality of England's back-row forwards during this time.

"I have no hang-ups or bitterness," he said. "There were times I felt maybe I should have got more but when I think about it I can't say I should have got 20 or 30. I had a lot of fulfilment in the work I put into winning those three caps and now I have a lot of fulfilment in channelling my efforts into the success, personally and collectively, of the club.

"So I won't be going out against Bath at Twickenham thinking this is the chance I've been waiting for to prove myself in international terms. After being involved for three or four years at B level, constantly bothering about whether the right people were watching me, I took the pressure off myself with the realisation that I'm probably not going to be a regular member of the England team.

"That doesn't mean I wouldn't like to be; it would be nice if it happened but I have no great personal strategy aimed at gaining an England place. It had got to the stage where this business of trying to impress meant I wasn't enjoying it any more and, having got rid of that feeling, stopping worrying about England, I feel I've played some of my best rugby over the last year or two."

Ryan was a Saracen and a soldier - an NCO in the Royal Engineers - when he first made a mark for London against the 1988 Australians. Controversy touched him at an early stage when he moved to Wasps and so became the first of the intermittent exodus of players - notably Jason Leonard and Ben Clarke - who have been lured from Saracens.

The following year, aged 23, Ryan came out of the Army and now, at 28, is not only playing as well as ever but also enjoying his rugby more than ever in a team who have blazed a trail for the rest of the English First Division with the audacity of their rugby.

Ryan has thereby overcome the very problem that was adversely affecting his form and therefore having a detrimental effect on his England aspirations, at the very moment that he accepts his international prospects to have almost disappeared. Much more of this, though, and he may surprise even himself.