RUGBY hero Shane Byrne retired from professional rugby in 2007 and has recently hung up his boots permanently with some regret, after spending the last two seasons with Blackrock where he first started 18 years ago. A likeable extrovert with an easy manner, Shane is one of the most capped Leinster players of all time and was regarded at the height of his career as one of most accurate line-out throwers in the World.
Born in 1971, Shane Byrne grew up in the picturesque village of Aughrim, the middle child of Liz and Arthur Byrne, where his father ran the family business Arklow Waste Disposal. He had a happy childhood full of sporting interests along with his older brother Billy, who played rugby and his younger sister Rachel, a keen hockey player. His mother Liz, his lifelong greatest supporter, is also a well-known figure in golfing circles around the area. As a young lad, Shane remembers Aughrim as a place where everyone knew everyone and although that has changed with the massive growth in population now, he still feels it has retained its great community spirit.
'I love the place. It looks fantastic,' Shane says with pride. 'When I was young it was just a small village but very traditional and social, where the doors were always open to you. It's grown a lot but it has still kept its nice friendly environment. The community all seem to pull together here for things like the Tidy Towns Competition which Aughrim won three years ago and came second in last year.'
Shane started playing rugby at the age of 13 when he went as a boarder to Blackrock College, the alma mater for many great rugby players. Having had a traditional Irish country upbringing it was always GAA sports and athletics that he was involved in up to then. He played gaelic football up to under-16 level with the local Aughrim club and also enjoyed running and power sports. Although he played rugby at college through his teenage years he never did well in it or had a real interest in it until he was about 17 years old.
'I was really late into the game,' he says. 'To be honest, I was terrible! It was literally in the last year of school that the penny dropped. I suppose the ability was always there but I didn't know what to do with it. I believe ninety per cent of rugby is in your head. Your body just carries you around but it's really all about your attitude and determination.'
With that new inbuilt determination, Shane joined Blackrock Senior Rugby Club when he was 21 and has since played 18 seasons with them. He also went on to play 14 seasons with Leinster. Although he got into the Irish Squad in 1993 it was a long wait with many ups and downs before he got his first cap for Ireland against Italy in the Six Nations Championship game in Lansdown Road in 2001.
Shane remembers: 'It looked like I was going to get capped quickly in the early 90s but it didn't happen. So it was like the 'Holy Grail' to me. It was something that I couldn't quite get to, always getting leap-frogged and various things going wrong. So when I finally got capped it brought the thing to a whole other level.'
Asked what it was like, that first time playing for your country, putting on the Irish jersey, he says, 'Ah! You know, you can't describe it. As a rugby player it's all you ever attain to. The joy of representing your country, to stand there for your national anthem. It's unbelievable.'
That same year in 2001, Shane got married to Caroline, a native of Monaghan, whom he was introduced to by a friend at a disco in Dundalk. Soon after the happy couple started a family and are now the proud parents of seven-year-old twin girls, Alex and Kerry, who attend the gaelscoil in Arklow. Asked about his thoughts on being a Dad and would he like to see his girls play rugby? He laughs and says, 'They are real girly, girls, always wearing pink and the like and have so far shown no interest in rugby. I would have no problem with it, if they wanted to play but I don't think Caroline would enjoy supporting yet again. You see, I got married six days after I got my first cap and the rugby just took off. Then when the girls came along, Caroline gave up her job to look after them. It was hard on her alone with the kids a lot. I was an absentee Dad for a long time. I missed a lot of their early years because of rugby. For the first year of their lives I was home only twice for ten days in a row. I'm trying to make up for that since I retired but it's not always easy as the business and other commitments take up more and more of my time.' Shane plied his trade for Leinster for many years and in 2005 he was selected for the British and Irish Lions Tour to New Zealand. After the Tour his contract talks with Leinster were inconclusive, so he joined Saracens FC and headed off to England, wife and family in tow for two years.
'I didn't want to leave Leinster at that time so it was a bit of a wrench going to England.' Shane tells us. 'That first year was very hard but by the second year I was settled in and happier and playing better rugby. We lived in a beautiful town called Harpenden, a place that Caroline and I both loved. If I could have picked up that town
and brought it back to Ireland, I would have.'
There have been many highlights in Shane Byrne's rugby career including winning the Triple Crown in 2004, scoring two tries in a match against Wales, and the New Zealand Lions Tour in 2005, but he feels that getting his first cap will always be a defining moment for him. 'Getting my first cap will always be a special time for me and I have to say that beating South Africa for the first time and beating Australia for the first time were definitely highlights too. But a little one I cherish was when we beat England in Twickenham when they were World Champions. That was the same year as the Triple Crown, so that game will go down in my memory as special.' He feels proud to be one of the most capped Leinster players of all time as he tells us, 'I started paying for Leinster when they played only two or three games a year. It was the club games that were biggest in Ireland then not the provinces. They only played a handful of games a year. So having 41 caps is definitely something I cherish and am very proud of.'
Asked what he thinks when he is described as the most accurate line out thrower in the World and how did he train to develop this skill, he answers with true modesty. 'I was lucky to have the guys I had to throw at. Superb guys like Mal O'Kelly, whom I had a great relationship with for Leinster and Ireland. Then of course there was Paul O'Connell in the later years. These guys were very easy to hit. I would never train, never practice. I believe if it ain't broken, don't fix it. Of course the young lads coming up have to practise. At that stage my technique was bedded in. If you're learning a technique you have to practise but once you have it down, thats it. I also feel that nothing can replace throwing to a live line out. Also, I called out every line out I ever threw and now the second row call it, I feel there is something lost in that.'
Shane has suffered a number of injuries over the years like torn muscles, shredded ligaments, popped ribs and a broken sternum but feels that he has been very lucky in that respect as he is carrying nothing now. When asked if he thinks the game has got more dangerous as rugby union has got so much faster and the players bigger and fitter he disagrees.
'People say the injury rate has gone up but it hasn't, there are more people playing the game. It's a minute number who get seriously injured. The guys are trained to protect themselves and they know what they're doing. You see less and less injuries from direct trauma, like guys colliding into each other. It's usually a freak accident like a foot getting caught or something. Rugby goes out of its way to protect its players, the rules show this.'
Turning to the scrum I asked him why are so many scrums either collapsing or resulting in a free kick or penalty for some infringement and what has happened to putting the ball in straight into the scrum?
'Overall referees don't have a clue what goes on in scrums. As a front row player, a little bit of me is happy with that. But I don't think the way players are engaging in the scrum is right either now. It comes down to the refs. and it's about policing the scrums strongly. Like the whole crooked in, that's the refs. The old skill where the hooker guided the ball back in, is being coached out of the game. One thing I used to pride myself in doing.'
What about the ruck, the most difficult area of play currently? It seems that every referee interprets the rules differently; doesn't that pose huge problems for the players?
'Yes, they made the rule to change the ruck half way through the six nations. Crazy! It's a problem they have and the Southern Hemisphere referees ref it differently from the Northern refs. It's up to the powers that be - the I.R.B. have to sort this out. Players have to spend the first five to ten minutes of the game learning what the ref does. International teams and the big professional teams will put as much effort into learning about the ref. as the opposition. The refs can change the game.'
Asked how he thought Ireland will do in the New Zealand/Australia Tour this year, Shane tells us, 'It's a big step. Ireland has been up there with the best sides but it needs to make another step. We've never won in the Southern Hemisphere. We need to take Australia or New Zealand. Australia looks more likely but I'd really love Ireland to beat New Zealand because I bloody hate them. They were the only international side I didn't beat.'
Shane feels that this generation of players deserve to create another milestone and although we have a tiny player base in international rugby terms it has been incredible what these guys have achieved and admires the commitment of players like Brian O'Driscoll in particular.
'Brian has skills where he could have just stayed back and played the game skilfully as we've seen many players do but he gets totally involved and puts his body through horrendous physical abuse. He is completely committed to the team and has taken professionalism to a different level. When he retires and you only get this accolade when you retire, I believe Brian O'Driscoll will go down as one of the best ever to play the game.' Nowadays for Shane, what space rugby left in his life, work has filled. He runs the family Waste Disposal Business with his brother Billy since his father retired and they have recently opened up on the main street of Wicklow Town. 'We do everything from A to Z of waste disposal,' Shane tells us. 'We pride ourselves on being the only local company left in this business in the south east of the country. We plan to keep going through these hard times and fight to keep the people we have employed. As co-owner I am always planning ahead and trying to manover the company into a better position. Being a professional rugby player for 11 years, probably stood me well when stepping into business.'
Shane is also involved in fundraising for umpteen different charities like Temple Street and our Lady's Hospice and is Ambassador for 'Fighting Blindness' and patron of GOAL, the International Humanitarian agency. More recently he has put his name to the Wicklow Hospice Charity and is a big supported of the 'Pink Ladies' a local girls youth club who are trying to promote a spirit of keep it local, shop local in the county. Last year Shane participated in the R.T.E. programme 'Charity you're a Star' in the Helix, Dublin to raise money for his chosen charity, GOAL. Shane tells us, 'Because I'm well known in the area, I'm asked to do a lot of things and get involved in things. I'm happy to help when I can as I know this is a difficult time for charities and to be honest, I do find it hard to say no. The reality TV show in the Helix was great fun. I like singing and don't mind making a fool of myself for charity.'
Our hard working, philanthropic, local hero, is going to miss playing rugby and feels he won't be able to look back on his amazing career and enjoy it for at least another ten years. Shane explains,
'Rugby is something I'll miss forever,' he says. 'I still want to do it. During my career I always thought that I would get hurt, get a knee injury or something and that would knock me out and I would have to retire. Now I'm here retired and feeling the same as I did when I was playing, thinking about what I could do or should have done. Whereas in another ten years, hopefully I won't feel like that and I'll be able to look back on my career and really enjoy it.'