Ross Byrne has become a stand-out rather than a stand-in
Decision to stay at Leinster pays off for player and club
IT is just over a year since the IRFU sent their heavy-hitters into Leinster HQ on the eve of the 2018 Champions Cup semi-final to deliver what they would term a request.
It is clear that Leo Cullen and Guy Easterby would have used a quite different term but what is certain is that when David Nucifora and Joe Schmidt departed after an awkward summit, Leinster were left with a dilemma.
One of Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne would have to be sacrificed for the greater good; Leinster argued their case but it was always going to be a losing one.
Ulster seemed to be the prime destination and it was assumed that Byrne would have to take the plunge; ultimately, however, it was Carbery who left, heading south, not north.
The finer details remain unclear but whatever happened behind closed doors, Byrne's renewed commitment to his province, one which was eagerly reciprocated, has paid dividends for both player and club.
It wasn't the first time that Leinster's healthy playing stock would be raided to shore up weaker links in the Irish system; and it certainly won't be the last.
But without question Byrne has thrived with the renewed responsibility, the apex of achievement that stunning, pained arrow from the tee late on against Ulster.
Not only did it justify his faith in Leinster, and theirs in him, it has also removed any lingering spectre of anxiety that once shuddered throughout their ranks when Jonathan Sexton is marked absent.
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Carbery's absence has barely hindered Leinster's unprecedented assault on a double-double. Sexton's return last weekend was notable, both in his ability to recapture the form level and positive mood that deserted him in an Irish shirt this spring, but also for the fact that it was first for Leinster in this calendar year.
And yet his absence has generated none of the anxiety that pervades Irish supporters when he is scratched from the national side; indeed, such is his seemingly indispensable importance to Schmidt, he was also forced to play while carrying injury throughout much of the tournament.
When he returned to Leinster, Cullen had no hesitation in refusing to risk him for the quarter-final tie against Ulster and so, as he had done in the final two pool matches, Byrne was tasked with steering the ship, a task he fulfilled with the minimum of fuss.
"He has always been there for us when we needed him," says assistant coach John Fogarty, with what seems like a doffing of faint praise, if it were not suffused with the conviction of the assuredness that Byrne has provided the team this term.
"You have to admire his mindset. He knows Johnny's there. He runs the teams like Johnny when Johnny is not there. If Johnny is here, Ross is adding to the conversations as well. He has really stood up this season for us."
Fogarty references the past anxiety that accompanied their over-reliance on Sexton to affirm the present-day comfort.
"In the past if Johnny wasn't there? I remember when we played against Toulouse in a semi-final and Johnny didn't start and it was like, 'Jesus Christ.'
"There was an effect on the entire playing group. Now, though, if Johnny is not there, Ross is there. He gives confidence to everyone, we know what game he will play. The forwards like playing with him.
"He manages the group really well during the week. He's a very confident fella but such a solid person for us in our group.
"Getting to semi-finals, finals, winning competitions you have to have a squad and it is going to be massively tested. We are very lucky to have Ross in this squad. Like I said, when Johnny is not there, there is not this anxiety in the coaching or playing group. That's what Ross brings mentally and in the way he plays the game. He is very, very capable."
Byrne senses that feeling of comfort in his surroundings too; it was the reason he wanted to stay, after all; not merely content to remain in the shadows, but nonetheless wholly comfortable when the spotlight shines.
"It is probably just another year of being in the senior team, another year of experience, to be honest," he says when asked to sum up his status as a stand-out performer, rather than just a stand-in.
"Besides that, I feel more comfortable, more settled. It is my third full season in the senior team, so it's probably experience more than anything else. I've played in some big games as well and I've gone reasonably okay. It's just a case of big-game experience. The more you play in those games, the more comfortable you feel."
He has won two caps but, since November, slipped down the pecking order with Connacht's resurgent playmaker Jack Carty emerging as a threat to his hopes of appearing at the Rugby World Cup.
"Jack has been playing phenomenally well for Connacht," he says. "I actually thought he did quite well when he came on for Ireland as well."
Byrne knows he will get another chance to impress during the summer World Cup warm-ups when Schmidt must finally decide who is best-placed to deputise for Sexton and Carbery in Japan.
"For me, it's just a case of trying to improve my game. Any chance I can get here in Leinster I need to be to be the best I can be and push Leinster into the places we want to go.
"The better I play, the better Leinster play and, if Leinster do well, it looks good for me.
"I was surprised because I was in the November squad and I obviously wanted to be in the Six Nations squad.
"There's no point dwelling on it. Once it's happened, you just have to move on and try and improve."
"You will probably have to ask Joe how marginal it was. I was in camp for a week. I spoke to him during it and that went well."
As he demonstrated in his chat with him this time a year ago, Byrne has no difficulty in stating his claim.