Sunday 26 January 2020

Determined Byrne dares to dream once again

Ed Byrne (R) with his twin brother Bryan after the game against Cardiff in September 2014 (SPORTSFILE)
Ed Byrne (R) with his twin brother Bryan after the game against Cardiff in September 2014 (SPORTSFILE)

Marcus Ó Buachalla

If we're honest we have all had the same dream growing up - to follow in the footsteps of our heroes and to emulate their great achievements. Leinster prop Ed Byrne is no different.

Hours of match time simulated in the back garden with his twin brother played in front of thousands, always full houses in those days, and, depending on your particular persuasion, the dulcet tones of Bill McLaren (showing my age!) or Michael Corcoran, or maybe it was George Hamilton or Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh capturing every last brilliant play.

Do we then dare to add those same siblings into the mix? To share in that dream of one day walking out at the RDS in front of thousands wearing blue? Some dared to dream and for Byrne the dream became a reality in September 2014.

"I made my debut in the 2013/'14 season away to Zebre, came on late in the game but I suppose the season after that I started to get some minutes under the belt, a bit of form and you could feel yourself gathering a bit of momentum.

"Against Cardiff in that season, that was extra special to be there lining out with Bryan in the RDS. It's hard to describe the feeling really. Immense pride I suppose in the journey that we've taken from Carlow to get to that point and very grateful for that opportunity which we both got. It was fairly special alright."


The challenges came thick and fast - next up for him was Munster in the Aviva.

"As a young prop I suppose you are ambitious but you are also realistic. So you want to build. You want to build minutes and build that trust so to get 30 minutes in the Aviva against Munster was for me very rewarding because that's where you want to be. At a point where the coaches feel that they can rely on you to do a job and contribute for a sustained period of time, not just to maybe see out the game. I'm very grateful to Matt O'Connor and Marco Caputo for that opportunity. Obviously the overall result was disappointing but again it was progress."

That progress came to a shuddering halt three weeks later and the dreams were put on ice. Edinburgh in the RDS and he felt his knee. "I remember it alright and it was sore but you're young, you're getting a shot at a spot in a Leinster jersey in the RDS and you don't want to come off so I battled on for another while but in the end I couldn't go on. I had done my ACL. It was October so I knew at that point that the season was over."

What he didn't expect was to lose this season as well.

"I had pre-habbed well after the ACL and the pre-season had gone well. Like everyone else I was just made keen to get a chance to impress Leo and Fogs (John Fogarty) who were the new coaching team for the forwards.

"I was feeling great and came on at half-time for Peter Dooley in our first pre-season game away to Ulster but I only lasted seven minutes. I thought after the ACL injury that I knew pain but this was unbearable. It was devastating."

After taking a tackle, he ruptured his patellar tendon in his knee. It was the same knee as the season previous but the two injuries were not connected. That being said it was significant and an injury rarely seen on this island.

"Basically, I knew it was bad by just looking at it. The knee cap was up in my quad was how I'd describe it. Ray Moran, my surgeon in the Sports Surgery Clinic, is one of the top guys out there but he had never dealt with an injury like it in terms of the same knee and an ACL followed by the rupture. It was unique and that has been part of the challenge in recovery but nearly seven months on there is light at the end of the tunnel."

It is needed. It is hard to contextualise his predicament in the context of an ordinary Joe going about his daily Monday to Friday, his nine to five. Think about it. Going into work every day for the last 18 months but not being able to do the very thing that you are paid to do.

"Yeah, it's hard to explain it to people or for them to understand because it's not just being unable to do what you're paid to do, it's not being able to do what you love to do. So it is mentally exhausting at times but Bryan, who I live with, has been brilliant. My girlfriend Rebecca, all my family, because sometimes you need that outside perspective to help you see the positives and they have helped hugely through some very dark times." The positives have been coming. Slowly but surely they've been coming. There was the trip to the States.

"This injury is far more common in the NFL and I was put in touch with a guy called Bill Knowles, a world-renowned specialist in reconditioning based in Philadelphia. Leinster were hugely supportive and I went and spent two weeks with him in intensive one-on-one sessions and that helped.

"Even just talking to him and hearing from him how other athletes had recovered from similar injuries successfully because in Ireland, thankfully, very few have gone through this injury."

Then there was the spin on the anti-gravity treadmill.


"I'm at 60 per cent on it now and every day I'm picking up gradually so it's good to be back running. Pitch sessions are a few weeks away yet but I am doing some runs on the track indoors as well. Getting the muscle memory back is the hardest part, actually relearning the running technique, how to stop, how to go, how to accelerate. That all has to be built back up. But I'm getting there."

He mentions fellow long-term absentees Jack Conan and the recently-returned Mick Kearney as being a source of great encouragement and energy as they too fought back from recurring injuries. Short-term goals were set and short-term goals were met and right now he has one very clearly in the front of his mind.

"To get my hands on a rugby ball on the pitch before the season is out. It sounds like such a simple thing but realistically that's where I want to be finishing off the season on the pitch so that I can head away into the off-season knowing that I have given myself every chance of being good to go for pre-season next year."

Before that there will be a well-earned break to New York and a time to recharge the batteries. Then it will be time to return to the field of dreams.

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