‘Johnny Sexton has rubbed off on Ross over the years’ – Gibson-Park backing Byrne to shine in captain’s absence

Jamison Gibson-Park

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Before they were key members of the Ireland match-day 23, Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne’s mission was to keep the Leinster show on the road.

For season after season, they’d step up when the internationals were away – and the relationship they built in those PRO14 games will stand to them when they step out at the Aviva Stadium to take on Ulster tomorrow.

Sport is a cruel business – and while there is sadness for Johnny Sexton’s predicament around Leinster, there’s also a realisation that the show must go on with Byrne at the helm.

At 27, he’s amassed 143 senior caps for the province. And he’s just seen out a Grand Slam with four bench appearances and a start against Italy, so he’s ready to go.

And Gibson-Park is backing him to succeed.

“Ross has been brilliant. He had to put up with a bit. He wasn’t in the Ireland fold, but he put his head down and went to work for Leinster, eh? He has been class the last number of years, so fully deserves the opportunity,” the scrum-half said.

“We’re bitterly disappointed for Johnny and it’s pretty sad to think he might not play for Leinster again, but he will be floating around doing rehab and stuff – and he has always got a lot to say with regard to how we are playing.

“He is essentially another coach, so there is certainly a lot for him to do.

“They are both brilliant communicators, so that makes my job a whole lot easier. Johnny has probably rubbed off a lot on Ross over the years – so that must be a pretty privileged position, to learn from a guy like Johnny. He’s a great player in his own right.”

Byrne will be backed at No 10 this week, but Leinster are not short of options.

His younger brother Harry is showing signs of getting back to his best after injury. Ciarán Frawley will likely start at inside centre, but can play at out-half if needed. Notably, Ireland U-20s star Sam Prendergast joined senior training this week and is expected to travel to South Africa for the final URC games of the season.

“The other boys are brilliant really: the two Byrnes, and ‘Frawls’ there, potentially, if needs be. And Prendergast is training with us at the moment,” Gibson-Park said.

“There is a good bit of depth there and full confidence in whoever plays in that role.”

The sides last met in 2019 when Ulster ran Leinster close, and Byrne delivered the winning kick in Sexton’s absence.

Gibson-Park said that game is not far from Leinster’s minds this weekend – and he says the process of switching from green to blue won’t be an issue.

“It hasn’t been a big topic of discussion, but it is in the back of your head,” he said. “They were fired up that day and played unbelievably well. They made things pretty tight, and probably deserved to win the game in the end. We’ll have to be on the ball.

“There has been a lot of hard work to get to this point. This is what we targeted at the start of the season, to be in the Aviva, back in front of our home fans and families.

“We’ve given ourselves a proper chance now, so we have to give it a proper rattle.

“Lads have come back and done it before. It is tough but Ulster had a few lads involved as well. Probably not as many, so maybe they are sitting and waiting.

“There is no doubt that they will fancy it, but we look forward to it.”