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FEATURE Ross Byrne has the grandest stage to prove his doubters wrong

Ross Byrne has the grandest stage to prove his doubters wrong
1 month ago

Every season, there is a game when Ross Byrne appears to have come of age, and proved the doubters wrong. In 2022, he led Leinster to a resounding win over Munster, down at Thomond Park. In 2023, he was excellent as Leinster swept Toulouse aside in the Champions Cup semi-final. This season, La Rochelle were blown away in the Champions Cup quarter finals in one of Byrne’s most assured outings in the 10 jersey.

Then comes a wobble and it feels like we are back where we started. He had a couple of bright moments against Northampton Saints in this season’s Champions Cup semi-final but missed kicks, was far from convincing and could not get a handle on the match as Leinster drifted, almost squandering another 17-point lead. Edging with the throng, along North Circular Road away from Croke Park, after that tight Leinster win, you could hear the familiar Byrne lines – Does he have that killer instinct? Can he take control of the really big games? Only there until Sam Prendergast comes in (a relatively new one). Why not put Ciarán Frawley there?

Perhaps that is what Byrne’s legacy will be – the guy that always had something to prove. It is unfair on him, as he has taken over from a legend, but that is his lot.

Going back to that 40-13 Leinster win over La Rochelle, in April, my match notes on Byrne started off stringent – particularly when Teddy Thomas made short work of him on the way to the tryline – but lightened as the game progressed. His game awareness, sprint to get on the outside of Caelan Doris and flick the ball on to James Lowe were crucial in the opening try. He then nailed some big penalties, including one from 46 metres. When Levani Botia emptied him, early in the second half, Byrne gingerly rose and kept the foot down. Lowe finished with a hat-trick and Jamison Gibson-Park received a standing ovation but few argued when Byrne was named man of the match.

Ross Byrne
Ross Byrne has to lead Leinster and deliver silverware (Photo Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

Against Saints, Byrne came up with a big moment, yet still had people asking questions. 13 minutes in, with Leinster 7-0 up, Byrne shot up and made an intercept. Pegging it towards the Northampton 22, he was going with the flow for about 1.5 seconds before his brain kicked in. With fans out of their seats, urging him on, Byrne slowed a tick and assessed his options. Many players would have gone for broke but Byrne took the safer option. He was eventually swarmed but there was support there and Leinster retained possession. They ended up winning a penalty, kicking for touch and Lowe scored off a ridiculous Doris offload and Gibson-Park flick. Even when he made the right call, some wanted him to just cut loose.

At other times, though, the concern was that Byrne was taking a beat out of Leinster attacks. You could almost see the cogs turning as he received a pass and went through his options. They are just slight delays but, at the top level, it is often all a top defence needs to get set or make that crucial tackle. He was not the only Leinster player to fade as the game went on, but fade he did. There were also the three missed kicks. Two were touchline conversions but he did err from straight in front of the posts, 40 metres out. That one, as Leinster stalled in the second half, sent ‘here we go, again’ waves across Croke Park. His side held on and Byrne does not have that hanging over him. However, it may not take long against Toulouse for that sense of uneasiness to reappear.

Leinster have done all they can to assure the St Michael’s College graduate that he has their backing.

Leinster have done all they can to assure the St Michael’s College graduate that he has their backing. Aside from two matches at centre in 2020/21, all of Byrne’s involvements for Leinster have been in his preferred position. In 2018 and 2019, he began consecutive PRO14 semi-finals and, in September 2020, he started in the PRO14 Final win over Ulster. When Johnny Sexton was injured, in 2021, he was Leinster’s main man as they reached the semi-finals in Europe and won their last major trophy, a PRO14 victory over Munster. Byrne was back as Sexton’s deputy for the 2022 Champions Cup but got the 10 jersey back for the URC knock-out stages.

The sliding doors moment in the career of Ross Byrne was one he refused to go through. Back in early 2018, Sexton was not far off his 33rd birthday but already planning to play beyond the 2019 World Cup. The IRFU recognised Leinster were stacked with 10s and the initial plan was to coax one of them to head north. That April, Ulster and the IRFU terminated the contracts of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. The idea, as former Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt confirmed, was that either Byrne or Joey Carbery would join Ulster and inherit the 10 jersey.

Johnny Sexton
Byrne has had to step out of the shadows of the iconic Johnny Sexton (Photo Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

“The initial conversation with Leo Cullen, myself and (IRFU Performance Director) David Nucifora was not the best timing for any of us,” noted Schmidt. “It certainly wasn’t where I wanted to be at the time but I had a job to do. All we asked was if there was any interest for Ross or Joey to go up to Ulster (who), at the time, were looking for a foreign option. They needed to know before midday the following day and so we had to see if there was any chance at all if any of our local 10s were interested.”

As it played out, Byrne dug his heels in and insisted he wanted to stay and fight for his jersey. Carbery felt the wind at his back and made the move, but to Munster, not Ulster.

Six years on, it is hard to tell exactly who the big winner was. Carbery went to Munster but was dogged by injuries, and resulting confidence issues. He will play in the Top 14, next season. Ulster ended up with Billy Burns, who heads to Munster this summer to fill the gap Carbery is leaving. Byrne stayed with Leinster, got plenty of reps, faced some doubts, answered his critics and, six years on, remains in that rinse, repeat cycle. Between the trio, over six seasons, they made 15 Test starts for Ireland.

The latest outhalf breaking through at Leinster is Sam Prendergast, who has made 14 appearances (three starts) this season. Connacht have made an enquiry about bringing him out West for a loan season. Leinster are keen to hang on to the promising Kildare native but their argument may rest on Andy Farrell picking at least one from him, Ross or Harry Byrne for this summer’s tour to South Africa.

Byrne is well used to dealing with questions about Sexton. He has rote answers but you can often note in his stiffened demeanor how uncomfortable he feels, going over old ground.

Sexton had Felipe Contepomi to contend with when he was making a name for himself at Leinster. For Byrne, and every other Leinster 10 over the past 15 years, Sexton had the crown, even when he was not playing. Byrne is the player that forced himself to the head of the queue and did his best with the time afforded to him. Sexton looms, still, even though his boots have been hung up. Brian O’Driscoll said as much, this week, as he noted in Champions Cup final previews how many in the current Leinster squad had reached out to their old captain for advice.

Byrne is well used to dealing with questions about Sexton. He has rote answers but you can often note in his stiffened demeanour how uncomfortable he feels, going over old ground. The one time he really let his guard down, about fighting those doubt demons, came after getting a late call up to the Ireland bench, then kicking the winning penalty, against Australia in November 2022. “It has been frustrating,” he admitted, post-match. “I haven’t been in the squad for a while… I just have to try and kick on. I’ve had to be patient, and sometimes you need a bit of luck, I got that and got the opportunity today. It’s given me a taste of it.”

Ross Byrne
Byrne has said the chance to establish himself as first-choice has given him confidence (Photo Harry Murphy/Getty Images)

Byrne would also admit he felt his chance with Ireland may have passed him by and he had not taken the opportunities, previously, when they had presented themselves.

And yet, six months on, many supporters and pundits were left wondering why Byrne had not stepped up for Leinster in the dying embers of the 2023 Champions Cup final. With five minutes to go, and La Rochelle leading 27-26, Jonathan Danty was yellow-carded and Leinster were awarded a penalty. Not fancying the long-range kick at goal, Byrne kicked for an attacking lineout. Following the Leinster take, and after the reckless Michael Ala’alatoa red card, there were opportunities for Byrne to slide into the pocket for a drop goal. Resulting footage showed that he may have preferred that option but scrumhalf Gibson-Park was calling the shots and wanted to push for the try. Whoever made that on-field called, it went against Leinster as the French side held on.

Byrne, who has one career drop goal to his name (against Ospreys, in 2017), spoke with me about that Champions Cup end-game. Sitting in his new Ireland World Cup jersey, at the IRFU’s High Performance Centre, 10 weeks after that final, Byrne was asked about the drop goal possibility. “Yeah, it is something you practice. Whether you have the option, or get to do it or not, in a game, that is obviously a completely different conversation.”

In the four truly big Leinster games, this season, Gibson-Park has played 304 of the 325 clocked minutes. He runs that Leinster backline and sets the tone, with Byrne taking a back seat.

With Sexton now retired, it has been Gibson-Park that has stepped up even more in a leadership and tactical sense. “I’ve not consciously done anything to step up,” Gibson-Park says. “It’s just a natural progression for someone of my age – I think I’m the oldest back, now. We’re pretty fortunate to have some wicked leaders in the squad, and it is awesome to just lend my voice to that.”

In the four truly big Leinster games, this season, Gibson-Park has played 304 of the 325 clocked minutes. He runs that Leinster backline and sets the tone, with Byrne taking a back seat. He seems to have accepted that is his lot, and backs himself to make the plays when called upon to do so. It is not how Sexton used to do it, but this is how Byrne has found comfort in the Leinster XV.

Ross and Harry Byrne
Ross and Harry Byrne have been fine servants for Leinster over the years (Photo Harry Murphy/Getty Images)

The 29-year-old made the World Cup squad but Jack Crowley got the drop on him in France and won the faith of Andy Farrell. When the 2024 Six Nations squad was announced, Ross missed out while younger brother Harry got the call. Farrell does not seem fully convinced, either, so Byrne is back to being all in with Leinster. Asked if he felt this was now ‘your team’, he scoffed – “It’s not my team, it’s the players’ team… I’ve been playing 10 and driving it a lot. Hopefully I can do that again, this week, and put us in the right places, at the right time.”

“The Champions Cup means a hell of a lot,” said Byrne, when he was up for media duty, earlier this week. ‘It’s an incredibly special competition. As a kid, growing up, I watched it, every year. I was fortunate enough to go to a few finals and watch Leinster win it. For so many of us, growing up, we have been supporting Leinster and watching them win cups. That’s what makes it so extra special, for us – you have so many players now playing for a club that they grew up supporting.”

Should Leinster get over the line against Toulouse, this weekend, one wishes it buys Byrne a longer grace period. One also suspects it is not how his rugby career works.

Comments

3 Comments
R
Rob 33 days ago

Small note near the end on Ross being left out of the six nations squad, an unfair assessment as he hadn’t played since November I think and was still injured. Obviously Farrell prefers Crowley but the way you’ve put it makes it sound like he was deliberately left out, not sure that was the case. Either way a great read and much appreciated article on a very underrated yet crucial player to Leinster now for many years.

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