Just a year after playing rugby league for the first time, Ryan Guilfoyle will represent his country in the sport on the world stage.
The Ballyhaise lad has been selected to play for Ireland in this July's Universities Rugby League World Cup in Sydney. How far Ireland can progress in the 12-day event will depend on how they get on against their pool opponents - Scotland, New Zealand and the host nation and current champions Australia.
“When you look at it,” says Ryan, “it's daunting but at the same time, you might never get a chance to play Australia or New Zealand again – playing the southern hemisphere teams is a good experience – we played England, Wales and Scotland last year, so it's nice to play somebody new.”
Will you be up against high profile players?
“It's kind of strange, I haven't looked into their squads too much, I'm not one to do that. But as far as I know they will have NRL [Australia's National Rugby League] Academy Players, so there would be a good few high profile players I would imagine, or players who have a lot of potential for the future. You're really playing against the best of the promising stars of Australia and New Zealand.”
Despite some support from the Sports Council for the sport, the Ireland players have each to self finance the trip to the hefty tune of €3,500. Thus Ryan's hopes of fulfilling his dreams depend on raising sponsorship.
While rugby union is increasing in popularity locally, with Co Cavan and Virginia clubs both progressing well, rugby league is one sport yet to colonise these drumlins. It was only when Ryan moved west to play for Connacht's U20s in rugby union - he has since progressed to the Connacht Juniors team - and study Commerce in NUI Galway, that he first dipped his toe in the lesser spotted code. He made his debut for Galway's Tribesmen last May.
“I played with them last year to keep fit over the summer more than anything to be honest, and there's aspects of rugby league, like defence which are bigger in that sport than in union, and I wanted to improve on that. Then there was an opportunity to play for the Irish Students last year in the Four Nations, so I did the trials for that and got selected.”
Ryan impressed in the Ireland shirt right from the off. His Four Nations debut saw him score a try in a Man of the Match winning performance against Scotland.
Standing 5ft 5in, and weighing in at around 72kg, Ryan doesn't possess the burly physique you'd immediately conjure up when you think of rugby players. He plays stand-off or hooker in league, which he explains as the equivalent of scrum-half or outhalf in union.
“You are actually in the scrum in rugby league,” he says with a laugh, “which is peculiar for me. But the scrum is kind of non-competitive, so I don't mind that too much.
“I wouldn't be much addition in there, I'd rather be out in the back,” he jokes.
While his father Keith Guilfoyle is an avid sports enthusiast, Ryan inherited his passion of rugby from his mother's side. His grandfather, John Loughnane and uncles all played for Co Cavan. And he also has a cousin, Nathan who's currently showing a lot of promise plays for the U14s.
“It was always my first love,” Ryan says of rugby union, although growing up in Ballyhaise, he was keen to take part in all the village's team sports.
“I played with Ballyhaise [GFC] up until minor, and loved every minute of it, and the club are still very helpful to me and I get on with everyone. But unfortunately when I did go over to play rugby I had to choose one sport or the other.
“I played soccer with Ballyhaise as well, I still try to stay involved in the soccer club with coaching and things like that, but when you're playing at the level that I'm at – you have gym four or five days a week, and conditioning on top of that – one sport is nearly enough.”
When you consider the commitment rugby demands, one sport is more than enough.
“That's the biggest thing, the stuff you do off the pitch; on a Saturday it's only 80 minutes or so. My diet is rice, chicken and meat – it's fairly bland to be honest, but they are the sacrifices you have to make unfortunately.”
Such sacrifices are made somewhat easier since his girlfriend is experiencing a similar lifestyle, uncannily so. Shannen Lane, another Cavan native, plays rugby for Connacht Senior women's team and NUIG having previously played with Cavan; she has even represented Ireland at Rugby 7s. The couple seem well matched.
“The healthy eating and training is made much easier when you also have someone with you who is doing the same thing and she certainly is a huge help to me,” says Ryan. “Without Shannen and my parents, I wouldn't be where I am as they certainly make life much easier for me.”
The second year student has aspirations to pursue rugby to the highest level.
“Rugby, playing professional is definitely the main goal,” says the 20-year-old.
He says he has no preference of code.
“I'm one of those lads who likes all sports – I have no real preference, I just like being outside playing with a ball to be honest.”
Ryan adds: “Union was always the first love, but I've grown to love League. The opportunities that I've got from that in such a short space of time is great.”
Is either sport more accommodating of his size?
“I'm kind of lucky in the position I play. Rugby League is probably a lot more hard hitting in that the defence has to go 10 yards back so you have a lot more space for the big lads to get up to their top speed, but the position I play, a lot of the time I'm out of the contact. So I miss the contact, I'm not avoiding it, but my position in defence I would be out near the wing so it's not too bad in that sense.”
In Union he plays outhalf or scrum half.
“I would be more controlling the defensive line rather than actually being in it – be the brains for the big lads,” he says with a laugh.
So looking to the more immediate future and the this summer's World Cup, Ryan describes representing his country as a “huge honour”.
“It's the highest thing you can achieve in your sporting career to represent your country. It's hard to put into words – at the time when you're picked you are in a little bubble and you don't realise what you've actually done until you've come home after a tournament and people are asking you about it that you realise how big of a deal it actually is.”
Any business willing to support Ryan Guilfoyle in representing our country through sponsorship, can contact him on:
087 3184 089