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'It made me see that I took a lot of them for granted, particularly my family'

Adam Byrne is ready to relaunch his career with Leinster after 21 months out of the game.

Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

IT’S DECEMBER 2012 and Adam Byrne is sitting at his desk poring over notes ahead of his engineering exams in UCD.

The 18-year-old’s phone rings. It’s an unknown number and when Byrne answers, he’s surprised to hear Joe Schmidt – then the Leinster boss – on the other end of the line. “You’re on the bench against Connacht,” says Schmidt.

Byrne hangs up and immediately checks with his friends that it isn’t a prank before asking one of Leinster’s S&C coaches if it was Schmidt’s number. It’s confirmed that he will become the province’s youngest player ever – having only taken up rugby at the age of 15.

The next few days are a whirlwind and suddenly Byrne finds himself on the pitch at the RDS, getting seven minutes off the bench and nearly sneaking in to score a try only for future Leinster team-mate Robbie Henshaw to deny him.

“That was my first taste of it – Christmas time at the RDS,” says Byrne.

“The college exams were actually on at the time over on the other side of the RDS but I remember thinking that rugby was really what I want.”

It looked like the sky was the limit for the youngster from Kildare but just a couple of weeks later, Byrne broke his ankle in a club game for UCD. Two further serious injuries followed during his time with the Leinster academy and it would be 2016 before he played for the province again. A big high followed by plenty of frustration.

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Byrne has been deeply unfortunate with injuries during his career so far but as the 27-year-old gets ready to relaunch his career again in the coming weeks, he believes the best is ahead for him in rugby.

The latest spell without playing for Leinster has lasted 21 months. At the start, Byrne thought he was looking at four to six weeks out with a hamstring injury but every time he felt he was close to a return, there was a setback. 

adam-byrne Byrne on his Leinster debut in 2012. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Eventually, a specialist in the UK figured out that Byrne had a split between the long head and short head of the bicep femoris in his hamstring. Research into the injury was still relatively new but a small operation put it right.

But the light at the end of the tunnel faded again as Byrne’s Achilles tendon flared up and when he finally got back onto the training pitch after that, an old quad injury returned and required surgery. It all might have broken some people’s will but not Byrne’s.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot about myself as a person and the resilience I’ve gained from this will stand to me, not just in rugby but in life,” he says of this period out of the game.

“I really became closer to and appreciated my friends and family even more. It made me see that I took a lot of them for granted, particularly my family. You take them for granted and they are always there for you with that unconditional love.

“When things were shit, it’s your close friends and family who are there for you. It definitely opened my eyes to that and I hope I can give them good moments when I get back out on the pitch.”

It was the little things that made a difference on the tough days. Byrne’s parents, Gillian and Keith, helped him in his hunt to buy a first house for himself, while his mother would drop in cooked meals on her way from Kildare to her workplace in Blackrock.

Family is huge for Byrne. His grandmother, Nuala – who they affectionately call ‘Nunu’ – used to take care of Adam and his younger brother, Sam, when their parents were working and still lives around the corner from the family home in the town of Kill.

Sam played football up to Ireland U21 level and had spells with Man United and Everton before returning to the League of Ireland but he’s now retired, having also been severely hampered by injury.

Sam now works as a policeman in Liverpool, where he and his fiancée have a little girl, Nella. Adam is proud to be her godfather and is thrilled to see his brother in such a good place.

“I don’t think I’ve seen him as happy in a long time, so he is well into his next chapter after sport and he’s loving it.”

2091946.jpg.iSf2wJ-7MbntMXdjYBMA.N7ir5rsMDz Adam Byrne was speaking at the launch of Just Eat’s new partnership with Leinster Rugby.

Byrne was living with Leinster team-mates Dave Kearney and Rhys Ruddock while he looked for his own place and says he couldn’t speak highly enough of their support throughout his injury nightmare.

“I remember the day I did my quad and Rhys just ordered pizza with me and was there cooking whatever I wanted for the next few days.

“It’s just little things like that where there’s not too much said but they bring you for a coffee and those are things I really appreciate now. It’s made me more aware.”

Rob Kearney has also been a great support since his return from Australia, bringing Byrne out to play golf to take his mind off the injuries. Byrne has also taken the opportunity to rekindle a few old friendships during his time out of the game.

“It gave me a chance to meet a lot of my old school friends who I had drifted away from unintentionally, but that happens when you get caught up in training every day and playing matches.

“Everyone has been there for me.”

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Byrne loved growing up in Kill, which was a smaller place back then. Every time he goes back now, it feels like there are new houses being built.

He and Sam – a year younger – used to hop on their bikes and head down the green in The Gables estate. When they played football, Adam imagined himself as Brazil striker Ronaldo – “I used to cut my hair like that” – and if they had a rugby ball, it was Brian O’Driscoll or Rob Kearney.

Gaelic football was his real passion, though. He starred for Kill GAA club and played in school at Patrician Secondary School – where he won an U14 Leinster title – and then Naas CBS.

“I couldn’t get my head around it not being professional,” says Byrne of that time when he dreamed of playing for Kildare at Croke Park.

As Sam excelled in football – earning a move to Man United when he was 16 – Byrne began getting ahead in rugby, having taken it up at 15 down at Naas RFC.

leinsters-adam-byrne Byrne has played for Leinster 57 times so far. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

His athleticism saw him rise rapidly through the North Midlands and Leinster Youths ranks to the Ireland U18 team and on into the Leinster academy a year earlier than most inductees.

Rugby has given him a professional career and he loves the sport, but Gaelic football will always have a strong draw. Seeing Rob Kearney returning for Cooley Kickhams this year has been motivating.

“Chatting to Rob, he was saying the fitness level of the GAA players is something else,” says Byrne.

“I’d love to go back. I loved the sport and would love to go back and wear the Kill jersey again once more.”

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First, Byrne has a huge amount left ahead of him in professional rugby. If he finally has some injury luck, he could have another seven years or more in the game. Now back in full training with Leinster, he is hopeful of returning to former heights, which include an Ireland cap against Argentina in 2017 under Schmidt.

That Test debut came on the back of a consistently excellent run of form for Leinster in 2016/17 season when he scored 10 tries in 19 starts for his province and shone in the Champions Cup.

His start against Argentina came on the right wing, although he finished the game at outside centre due to injuries in the Ireland team.

“The day before, I think it was Cian Healy who told me to make sure I enjoyed it,” recalls Byrne of his debut.

“That used to be a bit of a cliché to me in sport, I’d be thinking, ‘How can you enjoy it when there’s so much at stake?’ But the more I read on resilience, I’m changing my mindset to not view it as pressure and just an opportunity. 

“It’s something I’m aiming for again but I just want to get out with Leinster again and go from there.”

irelands-adam-byrne Byrne won his Ireland cap in 2017. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Byrne feels better equipped now to make an impact on the pitch. He’s physically sharp thanks to his hard work with Leinster physio Karl Denver and mentally, Byrne believes he is in a very different place than he was before.

Leinster boss Leo Cullen sent him books, papers, videos, and podcasts throughout his spell on the sidelines, most of them focusing on resilience, and Byrne feels empowered.

“The biggest thing for me is something that they coined as ‘the challenge mindset’ – basically viewing pressure situations as opportunities,” explains Byrne, who cites Springboks boss Rassie Erasmus’ words about pressure during the World Cup.

“When I was younger, I used to think it was clichéd because you’re playing Munster and someone would tell you to enjoy it. I didn’t understand how. Definitely now, I will try to enjoy the moments and just view them differently.

“I’ll view it now as ‘how good will it be to be back with fans in the stadium, my family there, winning, scoring tries and giving people good moments’ – that’s how I’m viewing it now.

“As crap as it was in terms of not being able to do the thing I love, my job, this time did give me a different outlook on a lot of things. I’m hoping to use that now when I’m back playing.”

Byrne is thankful for how Leinster’s other coaches, particularly Felipe Contepomi and Stuart Lancaster, kept him integrated as he recovered and now wants to repay everyone’s support.

“Even while I’ve been injured, I’ve gone to every team meeting and backs meeting. I’ve tried to upskill even though I haven’t been on the pitch so it will be interesting trying to apply the stuff I was picking up.

“I think I still have the best of me to show and hopefully a few more chapters to write.”

Just Eat is now the Official Food Delivery Partner of Leinster Rugby. Delivering a range of healthy matchday and mealtime options straight to your door, this partnership will see Leinster supporters enjoying special offers throughout the season, with a 20% celebratory discount available on Just Eat from 12 noon - 6pm today as Leinster take on the Dragons at Rodney Parade.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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