Opportunity knocks for Ed Byrne
Having almost given up the game after a succession of serious injuries, Carlow native is ready to make most of McGrath's Ulster exit
Underestimate Ed Byrne at your peril. The loosehead prop is primed to be the big winner from Jack McGrath's Leinster exit and, having seen off the Lion, he can start looking towards bigger and better things.
At 25, the Carlow native is late to the breakthrough party. Of his U-20 alma mater, Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier, Adam Byrne, Darren Sweetnam, Rory Scannell, Jack O'Donoghue and Luke McGrath have gone on to win senior Ireland caps but the prop - along with his brother Bryan, one of the highest-rated players from that crop - has had to bide his time.
For one thing, props traditionally develop later than other players even if Andrew Porter, Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy have bucked that trend in recent times.
More pertinently in this case, serious injury has held him back from bursting on to the scene as he'd been expected to do. Briefly, the end flashed before his eyes, but he stuck at his task. Now, he's reaping the reward.
"It wasn't far off," he says when asked if he was ever close to packing it in.
"I suppose I was a small bit in denial saying I wanted to get back, I 100pc wanted to get back and give it a go so it wasn't quite as far as that but there was definitely some dark days there.
"It was extremely difficult. It was the toughest thing I had ever gone through. First there was the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and that was 10 months. I thought I was getting back to good fitness and then there was another 18 months on top of that so at the start of the patellar tendon problems.
"I didn't realise how long I was going to be so I was setting goals about when I wanted to get back.
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"Then I'd get six months and I get no closer to playing and I was kind of setting goals along the way and trying to reach a time and for a long time I wasn't reaching any of them which was unbelievably tough.
"But I had good people around with me, in here and at home with my family and my girlfriend…
"This environment is unbelievable they will give you a dig-out. You see (fellow cruciate victim) Will Connors coming back and everyone is everyone excited about that.
"People are always checking up on your progress. People will get really excited with Dan (Leavy) through his injury as well and try and help him out and try and get you back through the duration.
"It was a point where it wasn't getting much better at all and we were trying the same things and different things and it wasn't improving.
"There were some weeks when I was really struggling to get back and then I got back and things got a lot better.
"Then it was all about getting back and try and get myself into a position to play as well as I possibly can. There was always a goal to get back and playing the big games so that was massive motivation as well."
Patience was needed. While he was rehabilitating, Healy and McGrath were rotating the No's 1 and 17 jerseys for club and country and looked so far ahead of the pack that it looked like no one could break the stranglehold.
Steadily, Byrne made up for lost time off-Broadway; making 16 PRO14 appearances last season and continuing his experience-gathering this campaign.
When McGrath was sent for surgery after November internationals, Byrne got his European chance against Bath. When the Lion returned from injury, he found himself out of the match-day 23 for the key pool clash against Toulouse.
Soon after, he decided to head north. Byrne knows that his departure represents a huge chance for him to make the next step in his career.
"It's a massive opportunity," he concedes. "My main goal now is to finish the season strong. This week it is Glasgow so I'll try and put my hand up for the Toulouse week.
"Nothing changes in terms of competitiveness. Everyone wants to be playing the big games. That Toulouse game and the Ulster quarter-final… that was a huge week for me. It was something I would have dreamt of. Those were the big days I wanted to be a part of from the start of the season. It was massive for me to get the nod.
"Just the trust the coach showed in me as I hadn't played knockout rugby before. That was my goal so it was nice to achieve it.
"I was always so patient. As frustrating as that word can be, good things take time and I had to wait to get my chance.
"Two internationals and Lions, there is a lot to be learnt there. I took a massive amount from them, scrum-wise the two of them have been very good to me, we always chat through different things. Those learnings are so important to a young prop.
"You just have to stand up and take the opportunities in Europe and the interpro games, just keep putting the pressure on, pushing forward.
"As a player, you never can say, 'I am right at the ceiling here'. You can never say, 'I am as good as I can be'. There will always be bits you want to work on so, yeah, I am just constantly trying to improve and get better and those big days... they are the ones you want to be at the best you can be."
The way things have gone, it looks like he'd better get used to them.