Friday 19 January 2018

Hooker loving life in fast lane after long road to top

Corkman grabbing belated chance as scenic route via Connacht and Australia pays off

Kevin O’Byrne is delighted to be working under his childhood idol Jerry Flannery
Kevin O’Byrne is delighted to be working under his childhood idol Jerry Flannery

Daragh Small

It was a case of sink or swim for Kevin O'Byrne on September 5 last year. He was opposite Ross Ford, the most capped Scottish hooker of all time and a Lion.

It was a cold autumn evening in Limerick, Thomond Park was eerily quiet and this was the setting for his debut at 23 years of age.

Injuries had plagued Munster prior to that game and new head coach Anthony Foley called upon the UL Bohemians man the wear the No 2 jersey.

The result didn't go according to plan either - a 14-13 defeat at home was not a good start, but the Cork native had got a feel for it and he relished his 47 minutes of action at Thomond Park.

"It was a bit unexpected to get the call in the first place, I had played two Munster 'A' games last year but I wasn't sure if anything was going to come of it," he says.

"Then I was asked to come on-board a couple of days before pre-season. So it was all at once. I made my debut in that match against Edinburgh, it was the first game of the season at Thomond Park.

"So all in all it was very special to me but in those situations you wouldn't realise what was happening until afterwards.

"There was a lot of my family in Thomond that evening. The O'Byrne clan is pretty big so there was a good lot of them at it."

He was a relative latecomer to the game and since then has taken the scenic route, but Gaelic football was another major part of what shaped him as a sportsman.

"I played football up until minor for St Michael's where I was a full-forward. I played on the same team as the likes of Simon Zebo and a couple of the other lads," he says.

"I suppose I started at U-12s and that was my main sport and favourite sport really up until I was 18. It was only when I went to college that I started taking rugby seriously.

"But I did start playing rugby when I was in first year in secondary school in the Pres in Cork - I stopped playing just after the Junior Cup and played for Highfield until U-20s then.

"After that it was on to college where I played for UCC for two seasons and that is when I moved to Galway and the Connacht academy."

While at the Sportsground O'Byrne worked under current Ireland U-20 coach Nigel Carolan, while his academy team-mates Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion have gone on to play for Ireland.

MOVED

"I played for two seasons there and after all that I moved to Australia for a year to play with a Premier Division team in Perth called Wanneroo," he adds.

"I came home last year and played for UL Bohemians."

While at UCC, he studied biochemistry; however, he was always more intrigued by the workings of the human body.

O'Byrne is currently undertaking a degree in strength and conditioning at LIT in Thurles.

This has aided his growth as a rugby player both physically and mentally as he has a better idea of what his body can take, on and off the field.

He lives in Cork with his brother David, who owns Sasta Health and Fitness Club in Ballincollig.

"A lot of the stuff that we are doing in Munster are things that I have done before," he says.

"At the start it was very basic stuff and once you finished that in the academy you would learn pretty quickly the ins-and-outs of it."

But there are certain skills as a hooker that take a lot of mastering and O'Byrne's arrival into the senior set-up coincided with Jerry Flannery's return as a scrum coach.

The 36-year old former Munster and Ireland hooker is someone O'Byrne looks up to - after 93 appearances in the red of Munster and 41 caps for Ireland he is an ideal role-model.

"Growing up, Jerry Flannery was someone I would have nearly idolised. Every word that came out of his mouth would have been gospel to me. He went as far as being selected for the British and Irish Lions and he is a serious mentor to have," says O'Byrne.

"We work on my throwing every week, the feedback from the training I get off him is second to none. It is unbelievable. We work together in a group with the other hookers so we can all train together.

"Scrummaging-wise, that is a part of my game that has improved big time and he has helped me out there as well."

O'Byrne is very much in the early days of his career - he has played just 10 times for the Munster first team but they are stats similar to a lot of his team-mates at the moment.

With the Six Nations ongoing, Anthony Foley has had to try out some untested combinations - a win over Cardiff and draw away to Scarlets shows that the younger members of the squad have what it takes.

"There are a lot of the younger fellas I would have played with at U-18s, U-19s and U-20s here at the moment," says O'Byrne.

"The likes of Shane Buckley, Niall Scannell and Cian Bohane, I would have played with all those fellas when I was underage in Munster and it made it a little bit easier when I got in because I knew all the faces and I wasn't completely new to it.

"For me personally for this season to be a success it is just about staying as fit as possible and putting my best foot forward every weekend to get picked and really just improving every day."

Irish Independent

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