Tuesday 12 December 2017

How his brother's move to Manchester United helped shape success story for Leinster's Adam Byrne

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

One day, the Byrnes of Kill will make for quite a sporting case study. There are a number of high-achieving families in the annals of Irish sport, but the presence of a pair of brothers operating at the elite level of two very different games is an unusual tale.

When he was 17, elder brother Adam watched his younger sibling Sam pack his bags and head for Manchester United to pursue his sporting dream.

Just over a year later, Adam became Leinster's youngest ever player when Joe Schmidt handed him his debut against Connacht at the RDS - a mere four years since he first picked up a rugby ball in an attempt to get out of classes at Naas CBS.

Both have represented Ireland to the highest underage level. Sam is now at Everton and has played twice for the U-21s, while Adam is a Sevens international and has established himself as an increasingly prolific member of Leinster's first XV.

As he prepares to make his third European start, Adam is unequivocal in the role his brother played in his own rise.

"It was only when he moved to England I realised how well we got on and how much I missed him," Byrne recalls.

"We were always out the back garden practising how much curl we could get on free-kicks; when I started playing rugby I used to get him to run at me and practice making my tackles. We were competitive.

"For Sam, it happened at a lot younger age. At 15, he was scouted by English clubs and it was a lot to put on young shoulders. I remember thinking he'd grown a lot that year - to move to Manchester at 16 is a lot tougher than people think. It's a dream, but it is a tough scenario to be put in.

Adam Byrne sprints clear to score Leinster’s third try against Northampton last month Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Adam Byrne sprints clear to score Leinster’s third try against Northampton last month Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

"To see him not just go over, but to hold his own and do very well over there. . . it gave me the confidence that even though I was starting rugby quite late. There was my little brother going over and playing for arguably the best club in Europe. I felt if I gave it my best with rugby, things could happen.

"Although he's younger than me - and I probably don't tell him this enough - I've looked up to him in a lot of ways. If I didn't have him as a younger brother, I'm not sure if I'd be playing rugby here."

When the family made the move from Dublin to Kill, Sam stuck with soccer while Adam became enamoured with Gaelic football.

He played midfield, centre-back or centre-forward for a strong Kill GAA side, while he won a Leinster U-14 title while a first year at Patrician Secondary School, Newbridge for a year, before switching to Naas CBS. At 15, a friend suggested he might like to give the oval ball a whirl. Within months, he was getting noticed.

"I remember just being surprised the whole time with being picked in squads," he says of his selection for his inclusion in North Midlands and Leinster Youths panels.

"Whenever I had the ball in my hands I showed glimpses of a few things, but I still had a lot to understand about the game. I'm delighted I came up through the Youths set-up, to get the exposure coming up at Naas.

"If I'd come up through the Schools, I might not have gotten to play Leinster Youths a year young; that was huge for me. I was surprised to make the team, surprised every time I made the next cut.

Adam Byrne in action for Patrician SS, Newbridge in a Leinster U-14 final
Adam Byrne in action for Patrician SS, Newbridge in a Leinster U-14 final

"I owe a lot to Wayne Mitchell, who's not here any more, he definitely took a big gamble on me and reckoned 'we can make a rugby player out of this guy', Girvan Dempsey as well. For those to back me, I hope I can repay them."

He kept clearing each hurdle the game presented, earning a place in Leinster's sub-academy a year before most of his peers and a scholarship to play at UCD.

His Leinster debut followed in year one and it all seemed to be going so well, but he would have to wait three years for his second cap as three separate leg breaks and a subsequent loss of confidence halted his march.

"It was quite frustrating," he recalls. "At the time I couldn't put a foot wrong, if I was playing for the 'A's or UCD and then I just had a bad run. Everyone gets their fair share of injuries, but looking back my confidence was quite low."

When he got back fit, Matt O'Connor's preference for experienced wingers meant his opportunities were limited, so when the chance to join the IRFU's Sevens programme presented itself, it was a "no-brainer".

That brought his game on and enhanced his confidence and Leo Cullen finally bridged a three-year gap by handing him his second Leinster cap. This time, he was ready to take the opportunity.

"I only played seven minutes against Connacht (in 2012) and it was unbelievable to play at the RDS, to hear the roar when I got to catch the ball and take a few defenders on," he says.

"It was two different feelings, I was mainly delighted to be involved for the first cap and then the next time I realised that I was selected for a reason and I was here to do a job. Anyone who wears the Leinster jersey has an onus on them to deliver."

That RDS roar is becoming a far more familiar feeling and with the venue close to selling out for a European pool match for the first time in three seasons for tomorrow night's clash with Montpellier, Byrne looks set to hold off competition from established internationals to keep his place on the right wing.

"I relish it," he says of the step-up in class. "There's more opportunities on turnover to attack. The game doesn't change, it's just a little bit quicker and the mistakes can be a bit more costly."

His form is surely attracting attention of the man who made him Leinster's youngest senior player in 2013. He's taken every other step in his stride. Who's to say he'll stop here?

The last remaining tickets for Leinster v Montpellier are available on leinsterrugby.ie/tickets

Irish Independent

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