Thursday 20 June 2019

'That stuck with me' - Leinster star reveals the Isa Nacewa advice that helped him through his comeback

True blue: If you stand still you get left behind, says Leinster’s Adam Byrne. Photo: Sportsfile
True blue: If you stand still you get left behind, says Leinster’s Adam Byrne. Photo: Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

It was a lesson passed down by a Leinster legend, words Adam Byrne has never forgotten.

"Stay in the moment," recites Byrne. "The biggest thing is not dwelling in the past and not looking too far into the future."

Back in December 2012, when Byrne became Leinster's youngest ever debutant by lining out against Connacht at the age of 18, Isa Nacewa had taken him aside and shared the wisdom of experience. At the time he'd been referring to his thought process in games, but after all the peaks and troughs Byrne has experienced since, the Kildare man has learned to apply it to his career as a whole.

"That stuck with me and it's been very beneficial," says Byrne, who in the past 12 months has experienced the dizzying high of his international debut and the dispiriting low of knee surgery, and all the lonely struggles that followed.

Byrne started for Leinster in their season-opening win over Cardiff last weekend, but for all the obvious value in being part of their set-up, the 24-year-old knows how much is required to keep his place.

"It's a great place to be at the moment, but it's a big, competitive squad and if you stand still, you get left behind," he says.

"So everyone at training, any chance you get, it's about putting your best foot forward. Everyone wants to be playing every week and that's what the coaches want, they want the [selection] headaches. For me it's about keeping the head down and making the best of every opportunity."

The biggest opening of his career came last November when Byrne made his international debut against Argentina, and the memories of that day bring a smile even today: Cian Healy telling him to make sure he enjoyed it; looking out the bus window on the way to the Aviva and feeling the adrenalin flood his system at the sight of the fans; how the hairs on his neck stood to attention the moment Amhrán na bhFiann began to blast.

But for Byrne, the brightest day will always have a darkened hue about it because of what followed.

"To get my chance with Ireland was great, a dream come true and I'll remember that for the rest of my life," he says. "But on the back of that I had a pretty bad knee injury and it wasn't the best timing. I struggled coming back from that to lay down a marker and get back in the team."

Initially he tried his best to rehab back to fitness, but when that failed he had no choice but to undergo surgery at the end of the year.

It wasn't his first brush with ill-health. Byrne's flourishing career had come to a grinding halt in his early 20s, his progress stalled by a fractured ankle, a torn bicep, a broken fibula and more.

It's why the Kildare winger knows to heed the advice of Healy and Nacewa, to enjoy what he has, to stay in the moment. Back when he was preparing to play his first game for the Irish U-18s, he recalls coach Wayne Mitchell seeing his terrified demeanour.

"He said to me: "You look like a deer in the headlights. Don't fret about it; it's the same game, same pitch, just a little bit faster, so do your thing,'" recalls Byrne. "Those words have stuck with me."

That's what he did against Argentina, experiencing a hit so good it left him with the desperate want of a junkie.

"I enjoyed every minute of it and I just wanted more. If I can put my best foot forward and show my potential I can get back in the shop window for Ireland. You have to believe in yourself and I'd like to think everyone [at Leinster] believes they'll make that step up."

The best way to do that, of course, is to make a name for himself this season, and while Byrne will get plenty of opportunities this season he'll sit out Leinster's Pro14 trip away to the Scarlets.

"It seems like we play Scarlets every second week so there is a rivalry between us," he says. "They play really attacking rugby with good width so I'd expect another tough one."

They may have nailed a bonus-point win over Cardiff last weekend, but the manner of their victory, coming from behind to win by one point, meant there was no shortage of hands flying to identify weaknesses in their team meetings on Monday morning.

"It wasn't our best performance but it puts us in a good spot," says Byrne.

"We'll try to improve and keep on winning."

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