Simply the best: The bold target of Queensland's new minister for defence Peter Ryan

Super Rugby
by Emma Greenwood

He's one of the most successful dual-code footballers in the modern era, forged in mind and body alongside Reds head coach Brad Thorn during the Brisbane Broncos' superstar era of the 1980s and 90s.

So it should come as no surprise that Peter Ryan is as bullish and passionate as a coach as he once was on the field.

Though perhaps not as recognised as the others, Ryan is one of only four players - along with Thorn, Sonny Bill Williams and Will Chambers - to have won both NRL and Super Rugby titles. Ryan was, in fact, the very first to do it.

And now the 47-year-old is determined to be part of a new era of success for Queensland rugby, having moved home after a stint as defence coach of the Brumbies.

And Ryan isn't afraid to say it aloud either.

"I refuse to shy away from (making big statements). We have to have goals," Ryan said.

"If you're not going to be aiming to be the best in the competition, what are we doing?

"If you went around and asked every player in this team do they want to win the Super Rugby title this year, I guarantee you every one of them would be saying yes.

"And I'm the same, I want to win the Super Rugby title.

"I won one as a player, I want to win one as a coach."

Early days

Ryan played for the Australian schoolboys rugby team in 1988 but pursued a league career, and his footballing philosophies were hard-wired during a decade at Red Hill, from where he won two premierships with star-studded Broncos teams, in 1993 and 1997.

Playing alongside him was a quiet young buck named Brad Thorn, who would go on to claim four titles with the Broncos before making the switch to rugby and emulating Ryan's feat of winning premierships in both codes.

Ryan was the first footballer to ever win Grand Finals in NRL and Super Rugby after switching to union in 2000, and winning a title as a flanker with the Brumbies in 2001.

Thorn and Ryan have the credentials to big-note themselves but Ryan said their success came from a base of hard work and attention to detail.

"I'd been at the Broncos for four or five years before he got there, so I was already an established first grader," Ryan said of the arrival of the "big, gangly-looking" player who moved like a baby giraffe.

"I suppose for him, being a young guy coming in, as most guys did, you kept your mouth shut and worked your backside off.

"So I suppose that's what I probably noticed most about him that he worked his a*** off and made sure that he did all the little things right - which is what the Broncos was about then."

That ethos of working hard for the jersey and the team became Ryan's personal mantra and has also shaped his - and he believes Thorn's - coaching philosophy.

"We were fortunate that we were playing with some really talented guys - probably more talented than both of us ever were - so we were a link in the chain and we had to do our jobs really well," he said.

"I always come back to that. We were extremely fit and well coached with Wayne (Bennett) there and we would all have lived and died for the jersey and the club and each other.

"That ethos ... then creates a culture. And I think that's similar to what's happening here at the Reds at the moment."

Coaching journey

A devastating tackler, Ryan was highly sought after as a defensive coach and helped the Broncos to a premiership in 2006 as part of Bennett's staff.

He again made the switch to rugby where he was working with the Brumbies as a defence coach but the separation for his Queensland-based family took a toll.

"I'd resigned at the end of (last) year - I'd been living away from my wife and kids, so I'd been commuting back and forth between the Sunshine Coast and Canberra.

"It's tough. So after four years, I made a decision at the end of last season that was going to be it for me.

"I was pretty much relaxing on the beach and thinking, what am I going to do next, and then I got a phone call from Thorny and we started talking about whether I wanted to come on board."

A parochial Queenslander, Ryan jumped at the chance to coach in his home state and from the moment he walked into Ballymore, he saw positive signs.

"The young group they've got, they've grown exponentially in terms of their mental understanding of the game, their physical growth and they've got another pre-season under their belt, another 12 months of footy under their belt, and they're all that much more conditioned to being able to do Super Rugby at that level," Ryan said.

"Once you get to that point, it just becomes a natural progression ... that you will see some more skilful guys step up and then the rest of the team combine together and work really well and live and die for the jersey, the club and the state.

"It's a big thing for us."

Dual roles

Ryan's skill set makes him a wanted man - in both rugby codes. In an extraordinary gesture of goodwill between Queensland's footy rivals, Ryan will work for both the Reds and Broncos as both clubs strive to steel their defence in search of a premiership.

But his roles will be significantly different.

Ryan will not work with the Broncos NRL regulars, concentrating instead on the tackle technique of their academy players aged from about 17-22.

"For the role I do with the academy kids at the Broncos is really just about tackle technique and putting it into a ruck situation - which for them is a very simple type of play and a very simple type of tackle and mainly front-on contact," he said.

The contact work may be the same between the codes but the system-wide work is markedly different.

"I use the analogy of squash and tennis," Ryan said.

"They're similar things but completely different - and that's the same with the systems (of the two rugby codes).

"You can still have up-and-in defence in rugby as well as league but it means completely different things because you've got two extra blokes on the field, and who's in what position on the field and how do we get them there.

"And then when we get teams in certain positions on the field, how do we maintain them there to force them to kick us the ball which then gives us the opportunity to attack.

"So there's a lot more technical and tactical situations that take place (in rugby)."

All About Attitude 

The Reds finished 13th last season, while conceding 501 points - including 63 during an embarrassing loss to the Sunwolves in Tokyo.

That defeat came just a fortnight after a fighting win to the Lions and highlighted the wild fluctuations the young side was capable of. 

Ryan understood the reasons - a foreign country and language, probable lack of sleep and a young group that "unravelled" under pressure.

Sunwolves vs Reds. Photo: Getty ImagesBut such a torrential flow of points so soon after a gritty win was "straight up an attitude thing".

"But you go back to that youth thing - and I'm not wanting to use it as an excuse, because it will not be an excuse for us this year - ... they've dropped their bundle," Ryan said.

"Well, if they drop their bundle this year, they'll certainly be told about it and told how to fix it on the run.

"We stick together as a group"

Ryan can't guarantee the Reds will continue to improve this season.

But he's willing to bet they will if the enthusiasm he sees from the young side helps them gel.

The Caloundra-based coach heads off on his daily commute from the Sunshine Coast to Brisbane at 4am but is constantly buoyed by the enthusiasm of Reds players determined to improve.

"My view is no matter what happens on the field, we stick together as a group," he said.

"They've come out of an army camp down at Canungra Army Barracks for three days and if you don't stick together in those situations, there's guys that get ostracised or get left out and then they become isolated.

"It's the same as on the field. If we're on the field and I'm not going to put in for you and you're not going to put in for me, it doesn't matter what happens, we're going to go backward and we're going to lose by a lot of points.

"So the key messages will be, let's stick together, regardless of what happens. No one turn on each other and then we're a committed force working together and I guarantee we're going to win more games that we lose."