Sport Leinster Rugby

Sunday 22 September 2019

Blues' Christmas presence leaves Byrne delighted

Leinster’s Ross Byrne is determined to make the most of his opportunity with Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery on the casualty list. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Leinster’s Ross Byrne is determined to make the most of his opportunity with Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery on the casualty list. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Festive history has a habit of throwing up surprise number ones.

Those of a certain generation, for example, still shiver with incredulity that 'Fairytale of New York' was shunted off top spot by that bland Elvis cover from the Pet Shop Boys.

A few months ago Ross Byrne would never have countenanced becoming Leinster's number one. When the season started, he was told precisely where he stood in the pecking order. He knew exactly where he was going to be. But he privately told himself what he would like to become.

And so, when Leinster run out in front of the largest attendance in Guinness Pro12 history in Thomond Park on St Stephen's Day, the former St Michael's schoolboy will have completed a quite remarkable transformation in fortunes.

Balance

He may be the last out-half standing in Leinster colours but there is no fear of him losing his balance.

"If you told me at the start of the season I'd be in this position, probably not," he says when asked to assess whether his current status ever seemed possible.

"I obviously didn't get to play too much. In recent weeks, that has become a bit more of a reality so I have had to be mentally ready for it.

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"This is exactly where you want to be playing. These are the biggest games so I am delighted to be playing them."

If his graduation seems improbable, it is less so given his apparent status this time 12 months ago.

Viewed from the bleachers, it would have seemed that Ian Madigan's departure to Bordeaux would have naturally propelled Byrne into prime position to challenge, and possibly surpass, the candidacy of Cathal Marsh to understudy Jonathan Sexton.

Indeed, Byrne is often seen as an identikit of his senior colleague. A supreme goal-kicker, he can take the ball to the line at risk of physical punishment and he is unerringly accurate with his touch-finders.

He is also built impressively for the modern game, standing 6ft 2in and weighing north of 90kg.

The stage was set, then. But that was BC; before Carbery.

The Clontarf tyro's rapid emergence culminated in him winning the 2016 Irish Independent Pádraig Power Young Sportstar of the Year award alongside Waterford hurler Austin Gleeson this week.

From nowhere, he has emerged not merely as Leinster's main understudy but is also threatening to become Ireland's, too. And so, Byrne had to watch from the sidelines as the wunderkind accelerated into the spotlight.

"At the start of the year, I played pre-season games and thought they went well," he says. "Everyone was fit then. But then Joey was going really well and was picked, Cathal was on the bench.

"I was given things to work on which was totally understandable. I respected that. The lads were doing well and there is not much you can complain about.

"Then Joey plays for Ireland! You have to keep working away at what you are doing, which I was, and then just wait for a chance. It's about being patient, waiting for your opportunity and thankfully when it came I was ready for it. It's not always easy to be patient though."

Patience is one of his virtues; albeit Carbery's explosion into the public consciousness has seemingly shadowed Byrne's self-confessed, in relative terms, less spectacular skill-set.

But, as he showed with the U-20s, he can also thrive beyond the stereotype in a free-flowing game where punching holes and finding space, rather than ramming into brick walls at the expense of slow recycling, is the key to unlocking defences.

"There are things that Joey does better than me and I think there are things that I can do better than Joey. We're different types of players definitely.

"When he plays the game, he will obviously break a lot more than me, it will be more free-flowing. But then again, that is not always going to be the case so there is definitely a place for both. I don't think it is a massive issue.

Traits

"Myself and Johnny are both tall. We definitely have similarities as well but we're also quite different. So obviously I'd love to have some of his traits as well but I am pretty happy with my own."

Stuart Lancaster has been impressed.

"He has grown massively. It is a very competitive position. He's obviously looked at Joey Carbery come in and take his opportunity, Cathal Marsh as well until he gets injured.

"Suddenly, he comes in. I've been really impressed with his development over the last few weeks.

"I thought his performance at the weekend was the best he's played. I could see him building during the week. I thought he trained very well.

"He had very good control of the game plan, clarity in his mind about the way he was going to execute it.

"He led the team well which is difficult for a young player and he executed. But there is another step coming and it's on the 26th."

In the table-topping clash, Byrne hopes his Christmas presence can propel Leinster to the top of the charts.

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