Cup clash gives Byrne opportunity to impress
As the rugby season enters schools finals time, there is one Carlow man well acquainted with the week ahead for the youngsters of Cistercian College Roscrea, Belvedere College, Blackrock College and St Michael's.
Bryan Byrne was a schools winner with Clongowes Wood College at junior level in 2008 and at senior level in 2011 and is well aware of the road ahead and the nerves involved for all four finalists.
"It's a cliché but you have to try to treat them like any other game. For the junior final it's Donnybrook again for them so that helps but for the senior final I suppose there is the added element of a final in the RDS and all the additional pressure that brings. I have great memories of my time playing in school and I hope that regardless of the result on Sunday and next Wednesday that all the players will look back fondly on those days. But knockout rugby is about the win and unfortunately only one team can come out on top in both finals."
He has his own bit of knockout rugby to contend with this week as the 22-year-old hooker contemplates the challenge posed by London Welsh in the quarter-final of the British & Irish Cup tomorrow evening in Donnybrook (kick-off 7pm).
"We've had a few video sessions on them and I suppose as a pack we need to be very aware of the power that they possess. Their two props are over 120 kilos each so their set-piece is a weapon and we have to go about our business in the right way to nullify that threat.
"They were in the Aviva Premiership last season too and have retained quality players from that time. The likes of Olly Barkley, the former England international, is there and he has performed at the highest level so we need to have discipline and not give him easy access into the game."
Easier said than done of course but one thing that won't be a factor tomorrow evening in Donnybrook is the surface. Now home to the Irish U-20s and the Irish women's team, Donnybrook boasts one of the finest artificial surfaces around and Byrne loves it.
"Some lads like it and others don't but I have to say I quite like it. It's a faster game, more open I suppose. The only impact for me is maybe in the scrum I have to set myself and my boots up a little higher than you would on a grass pitch but otherwise it is perfect. But it works both ways. London Welsh will enjoy playing on it too I am sure."
The Leinster As, under the tutelage of head coach Hugh Hogan, have enjoyed a good run on their home ground this season with an unbeaten home record to match their away stats. Six from six is about as good as it gets.
"The pool stage went pretty much to plan all right. We had a very tricky opening tie away to Rotherham but overall we have performed well. But we saw against Connacht in the interpros that we played before the start of the B&I Cup that when we don't perform we can get caught. Connacht caught us that day and we don't want to be in a similar position on Saturday."
Byrne has started all six of the Leinster A games this season with one try to his name and he sees it as an important stepping stone.
"To be fair Leinster put a huge focus on it and that is again the case since Hugh and Shaun Berne took over coaching the team. This is the perfect shop window to show the senior coaches where you are at. To show them where your performance levels are at. Leo and the rest of the senior coaches will be there on Saturday and you want to put the hand up. But to be fair this group of players has now built up its own identity so we want to do the business for ourselves too and the work that we have put in."
With Leinster in the top two of the Guinness Pro12 and an interesting end of season run-in ahead, Byrne is refusing to look too far into the future but is keen to put his best foot forward all the same.
"You look at any position in the squad, there is real depth everywhere and in my slot at hooker there are five senior players all vying for that one jersey. That's not easy so opportunities like this on Saturday have to be grasped. You only have to look at someone like Jordi Murphy who captained a B&I Cup win a few years back and look at where he is now. It can be a real launch pad and while we are all keen to perform as a team and as a unit on Saturday we also know that there is more at stake than just a semi-final slot."
Since making his debut last season he has gone on to make 12 appearances in total for Leinster but eight of those were last season. Game time has been more limited this season with one start and three as a replacement and as a result the Clontarf man waits anxiously for kick off to come. It's a chance to shine. To press home his case for inclusion in Leo Cullen's end-of-season plans.
It would be easy to see how a player might get frustrated but Byrne disagrees pointing to a sense of unity within Leinster and Leinster performances being the centre piece of every player's focus be they in the starting XV or squad member. He is also grateful. Grateful to be out there and doing what he loves to do.
His twin brother Ed has not been so lucky this season. An ACL knee injury last season that was injured again within three minutes of his comeback game against Ulster in the pre-season.
"It was a huge blow for him personally but also for the rest of us seeing him going through it all. "So while it is easy to get carried away with this, that and the other in Leinster, when I see him working away in the gym on his own or as part of a rehab group, you quickly snap out of it. You are getting the chance to put the hand up, to challenge for places, he can't.
"He has been progressing really well lately though and he is getting closer all the time. It's great to see him inching his way back. It'll be good to be back on the pitch with him again."
For now though it's Saturday night lights in Donnybrook and London Welsh.
"We set our standards high at the start of the season. We haven't reached those standards yet.
"The season is now very narrow in its focus. B&I Cup and the Pro12. We all know what we want to get out of each, it's now up to us as players to perform."