Saturday 19 October 2019

Opportunity knocks for Byrne amid Leinster's injury woes

Ross Byrne will continue his rise when he starts at out-half for Leinster on Saturday. Photo: Getty
Ross Byrne will continue his rise when he starts at out-half for Leinster on Saturday. Photo: Getty
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Up until last April, Ross Byrne must have been pretty comfortable with his place in the Leinster pecking order.

Injury had disrupted his involvement all year with Cathal Marsh getting the nod when Johnny Sexton and Ian Madigan were away with Ireland, but with the latter off to Bordeaux last summer, he would have been eyeing the No 2 out-half slot for this season.

The UCD No 10 went into the Ulster Bank League semi-final clash with Clontarf looking for a strong finish to an interrupted season, but it was the northside team who took the honours and Byrne's opposite number who caught the eye.

Joey Carbery had switched from the College side to 'Tarf because Byrne stood in his way to the St Patrick's blue and saffron jersey, as he has done for Leinster and Ireland U-20s, but his trajectory changed last spring.

Since leading his side to the All-Ireland League title, he then caught Graham Henry's eye in pre-season and on the back of the World Cup winner's recommendation and pre-season form Leo Cullen picked him to start the campaign in Sexton's absence.

Byrne, who came into the season with a foot injury, watched as his one-time understudy went on to lead Leinster to a win over Castres and a bonus point in Montpellier, before winning three caps in a November series that saw him play a part in beating New Zealand and Australia.

Now, an ankle injury to Carbery has opened to door to Byrne who is expected to start at out-half against Northampton Saints at the Aviva Stadium this Saturday.

Those who know him well believe he will take it in his stride.

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"He's got ice in his veins, that man. I've got full confidence in him, I've played with him for years," his old St Michael's, UCD and Ireland U-20s colleague Dan Leavy said. "If there's anyone to slot into the situation he's in with that pressure he's the man. I've full faith in him this week.

"As long as I've played with him, which is for years now, he's always been confident in his abilities, he's always been really calm and collected, almost moreso than any player I've played with before.


"I know he's had Johnny, Marshy, Joey and a few other No 10s playing ahead of him, it just shows the depth in the squad at the moment, but every time he's slotted in he's played really well and myself and the boys have the utmost faith in him."

Byrne got a taste of the level last weekend when he replaced Carbery after 16 minutes at Franklin's Gardens.

He can be happy with his contribution too, overcoming a slightly indecisive start to grow into the game and guiding his side to a strong second-half finish that saw them claim a 37-10 win.

Byrne's style is very different to that of his fellow 21-year-old. Standing at 6ft 2ins and 14st 3lbs, he is a bigger man and while he may lack Carbery's flair with ball in hand, he is perhaps closer in style to Johnny Sexton and is known as a reliable goal-kicker, even if Isa Nacewa currently has the responsibility for Leinster.

At times, he was guilty of not taking the ball square on and fixing defenders but after half-time he appeared to straighten up and he will take great confidence from delivering a pinpoint cross-kick to his fellow St Michael's product Rory O'Loughlin for Leinster's third try. As O'Loughlin touched down, Byrne wheeled away with fists clenched for a personal moment of celebration.

"He'll take a lot of confidence from the game and so he should," Leinster coach John Fogarty said.

"You've got to celebrate those little wins, Stuart Lancaster spoke about that as well; making sure we celebrate those little wins. That's what he was doing there, celebrating the little wins."

This week, he is preparing for the biggest game of his career on a stage he has been destined for since his school days at St Michael's.

The Ailesbury Road school production line is an impressive one that has seen former St Michael's players captain the Ireland U-20s in each of the last four seasons.

Along with Leavy and Luke McGrath, the out-half has been seen as the jewel in the crown. Saturday may be just his fourth start in blue, but he has long been tipped for this stage.

"You could see from an early age, watching him play schools rugby that he had a really strong presence on the pitch and a good deal of confidence in his own ability," UCD director of rugby Bobby Byrne said. "To me he's always displayed an excellent temperament, he's always pulled the strings and made good decisions all the way through from Schools to Ireland U-20s and now hitting the professional game.

"In my view, he always looks in control and rarely gets fazed; I don't see why he wouldn't do very well.

"He's a very positive influence on those around him. He's a very solid sort of a guy and obviously it's a big occasion for him and he's well up to it.

"St Michael's have produced a number of really talented players in recent years; it would have been fairly obvious from his school days that he was heading in this direction.

"Even when he came into UCD in his first couple of seasons, he was performing strongly at provincial and national U-20 level as well so it's been a gradual progression but sometimes you need a lucky break to get selected and I've no doubt he'll do very well.

"He is a different style of player to Joey. Joey is a guy that got a lucky break with the AIL with Clontarf and his confidence grew dramatically in the last 18 months, but Ross is his own man and he's very effective."

On Saturday, Byrne gets his hands on the Leinster No 10 jersey for his first European start. His time has come, opportunity knocks.

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