Leading from the front
After over a decade of seeing the man put heart and soul on the line for Glasgow Warriors, supporters will be well acquainted with the many sides of Ryan Wilson.
There’s the snarling competitor, one that has proven himself to be a nuisance for opponents across both hemispheres on countless occasions.
There’s the cackling joker, always quick off the mark and even quicker with a comeback.
Then there’s the man who would stand tall and take no backwards steps when the call went out, always ready to do whatever it takes for his fellow Warriors.
Yet after 220 appearances to date and with a place in the pantheon of Glasgow rugby legends firmly assured, the cast of characters that comprise one of the Warrior Nation’s favourite sons are preparing to take a final bow at Scotstoun, with Wilson set to leave the club after a 13-year long association with Glasgow rugby.
So what would the modern-day Wilson think of the fresh-faced prospect that first took to the field in Glasgow colours against Leinster back in September 2010?
“I’d like to think I’d go ‘nah that bloke’s alright, he gets his head down and works hard’,” said the 50-cap Scotland international, after pondering for a moment.
“I didn’t have it easy when I was coming through the system, to be honest. I really badly dislocated my shoulder when I was 18 or 19, and I pretty much gave up on rugby for a while.
“I went away and got a ‘normal’ job and started working away, and it was only after a few months that I thought I should give rugby another go. I bounced around clubs for a while, playing for London Scottish seconds, Esher, semi-pro rugby at best, never really taking it too seriously.
“That’s when [renowned Scottish fitness coach] Margot Wells made me pull my finger out, and it was at that point that I realised I should start to take things seriously. I got myself into the Scotland U20s setup, got the opportunity here with Sean Lineen and Glasgow and realised ‘this could be something’.”
In a parallel universe, however, it all could have been so very different for a man now near-synonymous with Glasgow rugby in the modern era.
“I’ve actually probably got Rob Moffat and Edinburgh to thank, because they had a choice between myself and David Denton and went with Dents,” admitted Wilson.
“It could all have worked out differently!”
As history reflects, though, Wilson became part of a generation of Glasgow players that will go down as the history-makers.
Fellow club centurions Chris Fusaro, Pete Horne, Pete Murchie and Rob Harley – the lattermost having made his debut in the same match – were just four of the names to break into the senior setup around the same time as Wilson, as the nucleus of the 2015 Guinness PRO12 title-winning squad began to take shape.
“We’d all done U20s together, so we were already pretty tight,” said Wilson.
“The fact there were six or seven of us that came through the system together and got our opportunities together made it that bit extra special, though. We were – and still are – a really close-knit group, and we got given a lot of opportunities at the time. That’s really what springboarded us into a bit of success, because we didn’t have it easy at all.
“That first season I was here, I think we finished 11th out of 12 in the league, which was tough. Sean [Lineen] put a lot of trust in us though, and he mixed in a few good older heads with our group – guys like Chris Cusiter, Graeme Morrison, Sean Lamont when he came back, they all helped bring us up and added to the group. That’s the foundation of the group that went on to win the title in 2015, because that of youth and experience works.”
With more appearances for the club to his name than anyone else bar Harley, few are better placed to discuss passing on experience in a leadership role than Wilson.
Indeed, leadership is one of the facets of his game that has been evident throughout his career, whether in the black of Glasgow Warriors or the dark blue of Scotland.
“I’d captained the team a few times under Gregor [Townsend], when Al [Kellock] was injured or with Scotland or something – I think my first time as captain was actually away to Zebre, which is actually one of the most daunting places to go as a captain because you’re expected to win,” said Wilson.
“Shade Munro must have seen something in me, too, because he made me captain for Scotland A when we went down and won in Newcastle – still the only Scotland A team ever to win in England! We’re quite similar characters, Shade and I – lead by example and enjoy yourself on and off the field.
“You probably never think ‘I definitely want to be captain’, though, but it’s a role I really enjoyed. The most enjoyment I had was probably when Cully [Callum Gibbins] came in and Dave Rennie made us co-captains.
“Being a captain on your own is pretty tough, because you take a lot of the pressure on yourself. You’ve got a leadership group around you, yes, but there’s always a comment in your mind about if there’s something you should be doing differently. Rens changed the game for me by appointing us as co-captains, because he saw all of that straight away. He knew what kind of character I was, he brought Cully in and we clicked straight away. He’s one of my best mates and they’re up there with my favourite years with this club.
“I’ve definitely tried to pass on all the experience I’ve learned to guys that are coming through the system, because I’ve had plenty of team-mates and coaches that have done the same for me. Part of the way I try to lead is by looking after the player first. I’ll much rather have a quiet word with someone rather than call them out in front of everyone. I’ve always been really conscious about having the player in mind first and foremost, rather than what any coach might think. A lot of people try to lead by making themselves look like a leader, whereas a proper leader will lead without worrying about whether people see it or not.”
That leadership extends well beyond the day-to-day training at Scotstoun, too.
No matter from where a new team-mate had arrived, there has always been a welcome at the Wilson household.
“I’ve got no family up here either, so for me it was always something I thought was so important,” explained Wilson.
“I knew a lot of boys when I came up here initially, guys like Chris Fusaro, Henry Pyrgos, Pete Horne and so on, so we were always together. When Niko [Matawalu] came across we just clicked, and I ended up becoming the caretaker of every Fijian that came through Scotstoun!
“It’s actually a massive testament to Bex [Ryan’s wife], because she would always be asking if Squigs [Nick Grigg] was doing anything and if he wanted to come round for dinner, or if Niko was coming over, she’d be the one looking after all of us. The kids, too – pretty much every player is known as Uncle so-and-so now! It’s Uncle Cole [Forbes] at the moment.
“I worry about people a lot, though, and I hate being alone, so I’d always put myself in their shoes and go ‘right Cole’s on his own, what can we do to make him feel less alone’ and try to look after them. I just love getting to know people. We’ve been so lucky to have some unbelievable players come through, but some even better men.”
European quarter-finals, title victories and playoff history – look through any of the club’s highlights from the past 13 years, and chances are Wilson will be at the heart of any photo, a grin as wide as the Clyde likely to be splitting his face.
The standouts, as chosen by the man himself?
“Winning the title is definitely right up there,” said Wilson.
“It had been such a massive journey to get to that point – make the semis but lose, then make the semis and win, then the final in Dublin that we lost, then finally the semi-final win over Ulster and that final victory over Munster in 2015. Everything clicked that day. I’ll never forget it.
“Running out for my first match as club captain, too, is such a special moment. Al had obviously been club captain for so long, and I knew just how big a deal it was.
“My 150th game, actually, is a milestone I’ll remember for a long time. Reaching that milestone at Scotstoun and being able to celebrate and share moments like that with Bex and the kids – they’re who I do this job for and it meant the world to me.”
Yet one question remains, as the final act of Wilson’s Glasgow Warriors career begins to take centre stage.
When the dust settles and the noise subsides, how would Ryan Wilson like Ryan Wilson to be remembered by the Scotstoun faithful?
“I just hope people look back and realise how much this club means to me,” said the man himself.
“I’ve been through some very low lows and some exceptional highs, and I’m incredibly thankful to have had Bex and the kids with me through them all.
“If people look back and realise how much I’ve poured into the jersey every time, then I’ll be a happy man.”