NRC: Ryan returns to repay Country

by Marty Cambridge

Country rugby lays the foundations for many a professional rugby player but it's rare that regional towns have the chance to see their hometown heroes in action at the top level.

NSW Country Eagles captain Paddy Ryan will have the chance to pay back his hometown of Tamworth in the NRC this weekend, just his second game there since moving to Sydney to pursue his rugby dream.

Ryan has gone on to play 74 matches for the NSW Waratahs and has three Wallabies caps, but he has never lost his love for the town where he was first introduced to rugby.

“I always love going back home,” he said.

“I went back last year and unfortunately couldn’t play when the Stars played the Eagles.

“It was a great game, Tamworth really showed up and they get another game this year.

 “I’m not surprised, it’s a great town and a great place to play rugby.”

Ryan has 73 caps for the NSW Waratahs. Photo: Getty Images.Ryan's sentiment isn't hollow - the 28-year-old won the Rugby Union Players’ Association (RUPA) Award for Community Service in 2015 because of his active involvement with his hometown and country rugby.

His junior coach, Andrew Verrell is one of those who sees Ryan's efforts when he returns home, appreciative of a man who has grown up but never forgotten where he came from.

“He had all those little bits and pieces,” Verrell remembers.

“His ability to train, his attitude around the park, his work ethic, attention to detail, put them all together it adds up to a kid who was going to go somewhere and he’s subsequently done that.

“He’s gone off to form a full-time career as a rugby union player but when he comes home he’s always willing to come and do some stuff with the juniors.”

“He’ll work from 16-year-olds through to seniors and do scrummaging sessions that can go for over an hour.” 

Ryan playing in the 2002 under-14 NSW State Championships for Central North. Photo: SuppliedRyan's upbringing means he knows exactly how much sport means to a regional town, where a weekly rugby game can be a social focal point.

“Rugby in the country is a really big part of the community and it’s where a lot of people can gather on a Saturday and socialise,” he said.

“A lot of farmers are isolated for a lot of the week.

“To be able to give back through an NRC side and playing a game up there is really good way to show our appreciation for them

“The big thing for us now is to interact with Country people and show them how much we appreciate them as part of the rugby community.”

Ryan received the 2015 RUPA award for community service. Photo: Getty Images.  Verrell still coaches for the Tamworth Pirates and couldn’t agree more as to the importance of these events for country footy, after seeing firsthand the reception it received last season.

“Last year we were packed to the rafters with people, the ground was absolutely chockers we’re hoping that will be the case this weekend too,” Verrell said.

“We see this as a really, really important event for us and it’s nice to have a link into this national championship.

“It’s something we desperately needed, and the fact we can see Super Rugby quality players in Country New South Wales is a bonus.

“It’s good for rugby out here and the kids are really looking forward to it.”

Verrell was unsurprised to see Ryan represent the Wallabies on three occasions, following in the footsteps of many country kids before him and wont be the only local featuring in this weekend's match, Melbourne Rising utility back Mick Snowden also grew up in Tamworth.

“If you go through the pedigree of a lot of guys playing rugby in Sydney there’s a lot of country boys down there, it’s (the country) has always been a major rugby nursery for New South Wales and Australia," he said.

“There’s been a lot of Wallabies come out of country areas.”

Ryan made his Wallabies debut in 2002. Photo: Getty Images.And while he'll be bringing a semblance of professional rugby back to the country, Ryan will also be introducing a slice of the country to the NRC, with his mum agreeing to cook the entire squad a pre-game dinner.

“Pete Playford (NSW Country Eagles General Manager) and I have gee’d her up to cook a meal, and she didn’t take it as a gee up, she’s taken it literally,” Ryan said.

“She’s definitely going to need to kill a few beasts to feed the team we’re taking up.”