Monday 23 September 2019

'You are constantly being tested by the lads around you'

Competition for places and the taste of Champions Cup action drives prop after hard time with injury, writes Marcus Ó Buachalla

Burning desire: Ed Byrne is hoping to push his claims to move further up the Leinster pecking order over the coming weeks. Photo: Sportsfile
Burning desire: Ed Byrne is hoping to push his claims to move further up the Leinster pecking order over the coming weeks. Photo: Sportsfile

Marcus Ó Buachalla

In a season of debuts and firsts, there are not many stories that were more positively received than the Heineken Champions Cup debut handed out by Leo Cullen to Ed Byrne in Bath last weekend.

February 2014 was Byrne's full Leinster Rugby debut but two serious knee injuries had sidelined the popular Carlow prop for the best part of 28 months. When others might have given up, it was the thought of days like the Rec that kept him going through his rehab.

"It was actually a goal of mine. I was that specific with it during my rehab that this, playing in the Heineken Cup, this was something that I wanted to aim for and to achieve so to finally get it done was hugely satisfying. All I ever wanted during that time out was to get back, get fit and prove that I was capable of performing week in, week out and thankfully I have had that chance and I'm loving it."

The cap was hard earned away from the rehab rooms of UCD as well.

Loosehead prop is one of the most competitive positions in Leinster with two British & Irish Lions amongst those competing for the coveted slots on a weekly basis. Caps, at any level and in any competition, don't get handed out too easily as a result.

"It's the cliché that we drive each other but we really do. Cian (Healy), Jack (McGrath), Peter (Dooley) and myself I think match very well in terms of our drive and our determination but we ultimately all want the same thing so if someone else has that jersey this week, you do everything in your power to get it off them.

"Come match day though or the prep for match day and again I think that respect we have for one another comes out. Cian was brilliant last week helping me ahead of the game and we discussed a few things in advance for example around Henry Thomas and how he scrums.

"By the time I came on, I was scrummaging against Lahiff but again, we had our prep done there and it was great to have someone of his experience to call on and to chat things through."

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There is also the experience of twin brother Bryan who himself made his European debut last season. Bryan's highs were also a factor in keeping Ed motivated.

Slog

"I was delighted for Bryan but not just the European caps but actually whenever he'd get picked over the last few seasons. Big days for him made my slog easier. Just knowing that he was going well. So yeah it's nice now that we can both have the European monkeys off the back!"

The Byrne brothers are more than holding their own but there are only so many jerseys that Leo Cullen can give on any given week. But again the 25-year-old references the drive from within. A drive for improvement driven by the standards of those within the walls of their UCD headquarters.

"We are very lucky as a club. We have three front-row combinations that could challenge for a starting spot in most other clubs I believe and every week we are tested against each other in live scrum sessions.

"So most Tuesdays I could come up against Tadhg or Andrew or Benty or Vakh who has just come in this year. Fogs (John Fogarty) plays maybe eight to ten live scrums and it's a challenge rotating us all in and making sure we all get scrum-time under our belts but the benefit is massive.

"The lads that I mentioned there they are all very different scrummagers. They all bring something different to the table and yeah, sometimes they catch you and you end up on your knees but again that is a brilliant environment to be in where you are constantly being tested by the lads around you."

The scrummaging session sounds taxing but Byrne does concede that not all weeks are as bad and that your load would be tailored depending on who played at the weekend but when they go for it, they go for it.

"Tadhg is probably the best tighthead in world rugby so if you don't try to match that and match him, you'll get done. So no, we don't hold anything back. This week again it was good to get the reps with James and with Ports so hopefully we'll be good to go at the weekend."

There is a famous photo of his first appearance at the Aviva Stadium and of him shrugging off the very close attentions of one Paul O'Connell. Come Saturday against Bath he's hoping for more moments like that.

"I think back to that game against Munster and it was special. Any time you get to run out at the home of Irish rugby is special and you can't take those days for granted. At the same time it's about us knowing what is what and respecting what Bath will bring to the game and how they will want to make right after last week and we have to be ready for it."

Is revenge too strong a word for them? "Probably because you can't get too bogged down in the emotion of it. They know that the losing bonus point last week keeps them in Europe so now they have to get those extra points that will get them closing the gap on us and Toulouse.

"For us, it's about closing the gap on Toulouse, keeping the pressure on them so no, I don't think either team will get too bogged down in things like that."

Winding

And then it will be time to start winding down towards Christmas. Although for the Byrne brothers there won't be much winding down with three interpros on the horizon.

"The last 12 months have gone by so quickly. I actually remember last Christmas and for the first time having pasta for dinner with my turkey! Being involved in those interpro derbies was brilliant and especially playing Munster in Thomond on St Stephen's Day.

"It was a brilliant atmosphere and game to be involved in and hopefully over the next few weeks I can put the hand up again and see where that takes me. But I can worry about all of that next week. This week we'll get past Bath first and see where that leaves us for the final two rounds and we'll take it from there then."

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