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Dublin: 12 °C Thursday 5 December, 2019

Byrne takes latest injury setback in his stride in bid to get back fitter and stronger

The Leinster winger on groin surgery, pre-season and finding the right balance between physical and mental preparation.

ADAM BYRNE IS no stranger to the inside of the gym at Leinster’s high-performance base. And not for the right reasons. An excellent season, a season of huge progress and promise, ended back inside those four walls. Crocked.

He had scored the decisive try in the Champions Cup quarter-final win over Ulster remembered for the try that wasn’t scored at the other end, but lost in all of the fallout, was the fact it was another big moment on the big stage for the 25-year-old winger.

Leinster's Adam Byrne Leinster's Adam Byrne. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

He had done similar in the pool-clinching defeat of Toulouse at the RDS back in January and, when linking back up with Joe Schmidt’s Ireland during the Six Nations, it felt like Byrne was hitting top gear again. Solid, dependable, a try-scorer, but now consistent on the big occasion.

And then he came off the bench in the final quarter of Leinster’s home loss to Glasgow Warriors back in April, in the penultimate game of the province’s Pro14 regular season, and a week out from the European semi-final against Toulouse. 

Leo Cullen’s side had already topped their Conference, and lost the game, when Byrne — lending his weight to the defensive cause — suddenly found himself in an awkward position and, under the strain of the impact, felt a tendon in his quad snap. 

“I just kind of ended up in a split-squat position,” he explains to The42. “If you can imagine the forwards picking and going close to the line, and there was a guy picking, with another player latching onto him, so I kind of tackled in between the two of them and myself and someone else kind of drove them back.

“I thought I had been hit in the leg initially, I thought his knee had hit me in the leg. It was sore but thought it was just a dead leg and I tried to play on. When I tried to run again, I realised it was something bad and then the scan showed the damage, unfortunately.”

Forced to go under the knife immediately, Byrne’s season came to a shuddering halt that day. It was another deeply unfortunate setback for the Kildare man, who had made 13 starts up until that point and had put himself in a strong position to be involved in Leinster’s run-in in both the Champions Cup and Pro14. Instead, he watched on as the province suffered disappointment in Newcastle, before ecstasy in Glasgow. 

“It was a tough one to take,” he admits. “The year before I had an injury during the season and it was tough to get back in the team for the latter stages of the season.

“I had done every little one percenter I could — pilates, massage, stretching — everything I could to keep myself fit and healthy and that was one of my main goals, to be in or around the selection for the finals.

“I had stayed fit for most of the season so initially, yeah, it was a very tough one to take. But once it happened I tried not to dwell on it too long and just turned the focus onto to the recovery.”

Now just over two months on from surgery, Byrne returned to pre-season with the rest of the Leinster squad — save for the 17 now fully engaged in World Cup mode at Carton House — last Wednesday as he steps up his rehabilitation.

Adam Byrne on his way to scoring a try Byrne scored six tries last season. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Pleased to report his recovery has so far not encountered any hiccups, Byrne was back out on the pitch on Friday to tentatively start running again, initially at a low speed under the watch of the physios, and the hope is that the quad will have responded well so he can move through the gears over the next couple of weeks.

While Byrne has rebounded from a series of injury setbacks in his career before, the timing of this lay-off was particularly cruel when you consider the 16-week prognosis from the end of April ended his chances of earning a place in Schmidt’s World Cup training panel. 

There was no certainty that his name would have been included in the 44-man squad for the summer, but having spent time in camp during the Six Nations and then seized his opportunities in blue, particularly in Europe, the prospects were bright for Byrne. 

“It’s hard to know what the coaches are thinking. I would have loved to have played in more games at the end of the season for Leinster and then who knows what might have happened,” he says. 

“Once I got the injury, got it scanned and then knew I’d be out for a considerable amount of time, the World Cup wasn’t a thing. It’s always the ultimate dream to play for Ireland but once it happened, the main thing in my mind has just been to get myself right and make sure I’m back playing to my best.

“I guess injuries happen so much that anything can happen between now and the World Cup, but I’m just focusing on myself. When I was younger, I probably spent too much time thinking about things I can’t control but the only thing that’s on my mind now is to get back in better shape than when I left. I’ve tried to not think about it.”

It was, of course, Schmidt who made Byrne Leinster’s youngest ever player when he gave him a senior provincial cap at 18, and then under the Kiwi, the winger made his international debut against Argentina in November 2017.

Byrne’s story, and rise, is one of natural talent but also injury frustration. Anytime the door seems to be opening for him, or indeed anytime he has hit a rich vein of form, injury has struck. Already he has bounced back from two broken legs, a series of debilitating hamstring injuries and, after his Ireland debut, a serious knee problem. Now, it’s his groin.

But if there’s one thing that sticks out, it’s his mental character and ability to remain positive. In March, over six years after first landing on the scene as a teenager, Byrne reached the landmark of 50 Leinster appearances against the Cheetahs at the RDS. It had been a long and challenging road to that point. 

“It kind of snuck up on me,” he laughs. “But I’ve worked hard for every one of those caps. It probably comes with age and experience, but I’ve learnt a lot about how I can get the best of myself.

“Just getting as much sleep as I can, using ice baths, going to pilates, little things like that just to make sure I’m feeling good on matchday. There are obviously the injuries you can’t control and they’re just part of the game but I took a big ownership this season to control the things I could and make sure I was available as much as I could.”

Adam Byrne celebrates his try with Jordan Larmour and Josh van der Flier Celebrating his try against Toulouse back in January. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Byrne has not only grown in stature and confidence on the field, but off it. He cites Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy as big influences on how he now approaches his mental and physical preparation.

Nobody has ever questioned Byrne’s prodigious talent, but through the injury struggles and setback and stop-start nature of a promising career, there have been lingering doubts over his confidence.

Byrne’s speed and elusive running are undeniable, his ability as a terrific aerial competitor a real asset, but the hardest work has gone into his defence, whether it’s his decision-making or tackle technique. The addition of Hugh Hogan to the Leinster coaching ticket has been a real help in that regard.

“I’ve realised there’s the physical preparation, but the mental side is just as important,” the Ireland international continues. “I’m keeping notes on what works for me and what gets me in a good mental state to perform. I’m just trying to do the right things in the lead-up to a game to make sure I’m confident taking the pitch.

“I know what things I have to work on in the warm-up to make sure I’m ready to sprint. When I was younger there would have been a few times when I would have gone out and just sprinted and I would get a little muscle strain. You gain confidence from being fit, from knowing what you’re doing.

“When I get to the game, I just want to have as few thoughts in my head as possible, just go out and play and hopefully play well.”

The focus now is to build up the strength in his left leg again, with Leinster’s pre-season tour of Canada in August a natural target for Byrne to circle and concentrate on.

But the lay-off will also grant him an extended window with Cullen and Stuart Lancaster in UCD this summer, the upshot of an injury being that capacity to make incremental improvements in different aspects of his game.

“I’d be probably pretty harsh on myself doing a review of the game, so I want to improve on everything,” he stresses.  

Hoping to build on his performances last season, Byrne further identifies beating defenders and making good decisions in defence as two obvious work-ons, while also outlining his desire to continue developing his aerial ability.

Leinster regularly used Byrne’s athleticism as an alternative weapon last season, with Johnny Sexton and Ross Byrne using their pinpoint kick-pass accuracy to good effect on a number of occasions.

“When I came into train with the Leinster senior team for first time and Joe was the coach, Wayne Mitchell, who was one of my academy coaches, told me to stay on top of my catching as Joe demands his wingers to be good in the air,” Byrne explains.

CMC8924-405 Byrne last week helped open the refurbished Chadwicks store in Naas, Co Kildare. Source: Conor McCabe Photography Ltd

“It was something I hadn’t really practised before that but then I realised it is a big job for a winger. I do practise it a bit, but I’m going to try and practise it a lot this summer.

“When you’re in the game you’re just solely focused on getting up and getting that ball. Then there is that onus…we have done a lot of catching sessions where if you’re not going to make it, just making sure you’re controlling your feet and not doing anything dangerous and putting the receiving player at danger.

“That’s another work-on, just knowing when I’m not going to compete for the ball and what can I do next to get a good outcome.”

After a brief summer break and a trip to America, it’s very much back to work now for Byrne, as he bids to come back from this latest injury setback fitter and stronger than before. 

“I need to be 100% and come back better than when I left,” he adds. “I’ll see if I can shave a couple of weeks off [the 16 weeks] but I’m hopeful of playing in some of those pre-season games and be at least ready to go for the start of the new season.”

Adam Byrne was speaking at the official launch of the newly refurbished Chadwicks branch in Naas, Co Kildare. A new layout, shelving, flooring, signage and counters have all been installed to transform the branch into a brand-new modern showroom, fit to showcase the latest trends on bathrooms floors and doors.

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Ryan Bailey

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