O'Byrne: 'I thrive on competition - it brings out the best in you'
Fit-again hooker reckons he's playing the best rugby of his life as battle for No 2 shirt hots up
At 25 years old Kevin O'Byrne is the perfect age to push for a regular starting spot in the Munster team, and to take over the No 2 jersey during the Six Nations window. But with an in-form Rhys Marshall around he knows he must bide his time and make the most of any opportunity.
The Cork Con hooker has had a tough couple of seasons with the province as injury ruined his chances of staking a claim for a starting spot.
But after his early season woes in 2016-17, he bounced back and ever since Christmas, O'Byrne has pushed hard to dislodge Marshall. And it helps that off the field things have come together nicely too.
The former Connacht academy prospect has graduated from LIT and with that degree in his back pocket he looks forward to performing as a professional rugby player before he needs to think about what's next.
"I am now finally finished the BSc in sports strength and conditioning in LIT. I will hopefully go on and do physio in UL some time down the line," he says.
"I have finished with college for a while. I will focus on the rugby for the next few years. That was a four-year course. I picked it up late, I started with bio-chemistry and finally stuck with this and I'm delighted to have it.
"It gives me another bit of confidence within my rugby - to have that behind me and be able to focus on my game. It just gives me that bit more confidence."
And that was crucial when O'Byrne began this season on such a disastrous note - he got injured in his first game back from injury.
After a long comeback, disaster struck again during Munster's Pro12 Round 1 23-13 victory over Scarlets on September 3.
"I started the season off on the wrong foot when I dislocated my elbow against Scarlets in the first game of the year. I was only on the pitch for about a minute and a half before I had to go off again.
"Then I was out for four months after I had the surgery done on that. I was back in the team in the new year. It was great being back in and getting a bit of game-time over the last few weeks. And hopefully I can take that forward and push on.
"It was just after a scrum when it happened, there was a bit of a gathering and it was a complete accident. My elbow was hyper-extended and it popped and I had to get surgery on it."
O'Byrne didn't play another senior game for Munster for five months, when Rassie Erasmus' side beat Edinburgh 10-9 in Round 13 of the Pro12.
In the meantime, Marshall was recruited on a three-year deal from Super Rugby franchise the Chiefs. And the No 2 jersey has fast become one of the most hotly contested properties at Munster.
"At the time myself, Duncan Casey and Mike Sherry were all out injured so somebody had to come in. It just means for more competition going forward. Competition is a good thing, I like that and I thrive on that," says O'Byrne.
"There's five of us there now at the minute, with Vincent O'Brien in the academy as well. And with five senior players going for the one jersey it will certainly bring out the best in a player."
One hooker in particular has caught the eye this season, and after some brilliant displays Niall Scannell got a much deserved call-up to the Ireland squad for the Six Nations.
It was a huge shot in the arm for the province to see another home-grown talent getting his chance on in the international stage. And Scannell has since turned it on for Ireland against Italy and France.
O'Byrne is delighted to see his colleague get his chance with Joe Schmidt's charges, and he knows it will only help the hookers in the Munster squad improve further in the long-term.
"It is great to see Niall up there, I am delighted for him and he is doing a great job," he says. "It's great to see someone go up and it gives you great belief that you can replicate that one day."
Scannell's call-up to the Irish squad is further recognition of how this Munster squad is going places and with the season entering its business end, they are in contention on both fronts, in the Champions Cup and in the Pro12.
But O'Byrne doesn't want to play a bit-part role when Scannell returns and he wants to fight it out with Marshall all the way.
The former UL Bohs clubman believes he is a much better player now in the second half of 2016-17, and he knows that if he keeps pushing it won't go unnoticed with the Munster coaches.
"I would like to think I have pushed on since last year. I keep putting my best forward in every game. I like to think I am having a positive impact when I come on in games for Munster," he says
"I need to keep driving on, keep training hard, keep putting myself forward. When I get the opportunities I need to take them and just show what I am capable of."
And it's always great to have the safety net of the B&I Cup and the Ulster Bank League if he doesn't start week in week out with the Munster first 15.
"I am with Cork Con this year. But since I have come back from injury I have been in the B&I Cup and I have been playing with the first team. I haven't had much time to play in the AIL, but it's great to have that too," he says.
"Those are great outlets when you have so many players competing for the No 2 jersey, it helps you develop your game."