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'It was tough, I would have had aspirations of staying on in Leinster'

27-year-old hooker Bryan Byrne has found a new lease of life with Pat Lam’s Bristol.

THE INCREDIBLY HECTIC schedule in the delayed 2019/20 Premiership season has been demanding for the clubs involved, but it has been positive for most of the Irishmen playing in England’s top tier, including former Leinster hooker Bryan Byrne.

The 27-year-old has made four starts for Pat Lam’s Bristol since the restart in August and even bagged his first Premiership try from the back of a maul in Wednesday evening’s hammering of Leicester.

BB

Byrne first made the move to Bristol back in February of this year on a loan deal after Leinster had informed him they wouldn’t be retaining his services beyond the end of the 2019/20 season.

“Leo [Cullen] spoke to me in mid-January saying that he thought I might be better off going somewhere else to get more game time,” recounts Byrne, who played for his native province 47 times in total having made his debut in 2014.

“It was tough, to be honest. After being on the bench for the Pro14 final in 2019, I had targeted starting the 2019/20 season well and really pushing for the first-choice hooker position but it didn’t really work out like that.

“I would have had aspirations of staying on and getting ahead of lads but the last few years when I look back, there were a couple of seasons with a decent bit of game time but it was always in and out. For consistency, you need to be playing a bit more than every three weeks.”

Very soon after that difficult conversation with Cullen, Byrne was in demand over in Bristol, who had lost hooker Harry Thacker to injury. Pat Lam made a call and things moved very quickly as Byrne jumped at the opportunity.

Determined to impress during the course of the season’s run-in, Byrne was delighted to make his Bears debut off the bench in a win over Harlequins in March, but then Covid-19 hit and lockdown was upon us.

bryan-byrne-celebrates-with-his-brother-ed-byrne Bryan Byrne played for Leinster 47 times. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Byrne stayed with Ian Madigan and his fiancée upon arrival in Bristol but had moved into his own place when lockdown hit, meaning he had 10 weeks of living solo. He was very thankful to have Madigan as his training partner, with Bristol sending out equipment for the out-half’s hastily-assembled home gym.

Byrne was left in uncertainty in terms of his future, though, with his Leinster deal expiring and his loan term with the Bears also ending as the Bears tried their best to sign English-qualified players, while other clubs were holding fire on any signings at all.

“It was weighing heavily on me,” says Byrne of those weeks but he eventually got a call from Lam with a one-year contract offer and a 24-hour window in which to sign it.

Within that same window, Byrne got the exact same contract offer from Declan Kidney’s London Irish, who he had spoken to a few times and where his former Leinster team-mate and fellow Carlow man Sean O’Brien is now based.

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Byrne felt Bristol was his best bet, with the move certainly paying off so far as he has featured heavily in recent weeks, impressing with his good form. Having become so accustomed to life in Leinster, it did take some getting used to a new set-up, while he’s also away from his twin brother, Ed, for the first time.

“It’s very different,” says Bryan. “We would be very close and we’re just used to always being around each other.

“We’re onto each other the whole time now but it’s strange because it’s the first time we’ve been apart and no one is second-guessing if I’m Bryan or Ed! It’s a complete identity rather than getting confused for each other.”

Byrne is loving the opportunity to see how differently things are done in another club, while he’s enjoying the input from Bristol forwards coach John Muldoon and attack coach Conor McPhillips, both of them former Connacht men. The club’s brand-new training facility is “incredible,” while Byrne praises the culture Lam has created.

BB Byrne has settled happily into life with Bristol.

“You celebrate the wins and he’d have a highlights reel first thing on Monday morning, he’d have picked out the Carry King, Defence King, Effort King and have all those highlights.

“We all send in our player of the day and there’s a first, second, and third place for that. Pat does create a really positive environment and it’s enjoyable.”

Getting used to the English sense of humour and speaking a bit slower with his Carlow accent have been parts of the learning curve for Byrne, and he naturally welcomed the arrival of ex-Connacht players Niyi Adeolokun and Peter McCabe when they joined on short-term deals until the end of this season.

Byrne is enjoying playing with new players, including the sensational Fiji centre Semi Radradra who is the “best athlete I’ve ever seen. I’m lucky to witness how good he is even in training, it’s unfair people don’t get to see what he’s doing in those training sessions.”

Bristol are in the hunt for a Premiership play-off spot as the heavily-disrupted final regular-season round kicks off and though a hamstring tweak has ruled Byrne out of involvement, he’s hopeful of being back in the mix for the Challenge Cup final against Toulon on 16 October as the club looks to win its first European title.

“The ambition here is huge,” says Byrne. “Pat talks about being a champion team on a weekly basis and being world-class.

“I was watching Leinster win the Pro14 a few weeks ago and thinking I badly want to win something this season.”

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey discuss the provinces’ 2020/21 starts, the South African-infused Pro16, and the schools-versus-clubs dynamic in Ireland


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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