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'To be playing against Ulster, that was a huge moment for me and my family'

25-year-old Ed Byrne has been in superb form for Leinster this season.

IT’S BEEN A real breakthrough season for Ed Byrne with Leinster and he had a new milestone again last weekend… his first time packing down at number eight.

The loosehead prop ended up providing back row cover on the bench for Leinster against Benetton after the late withdrawal of Josh Murphy due to illness forced a reshuffle.

Byrne

With five minutes of the game remaining, Byrne was sent on in place of Scott Penny just before a defensive scrum, where he lined up in the number eight slot.

“That was a first!” says Byrne with a laugh. “I was alright with it. I came on and had been told I might be covering six so initially when I came on, I was thinking ‘That’s a pretty big blindside there!’

“I was a small bit worried but once I was packing down at eight, I had a fair idea of what I needed to do. I spoke to Max [Deegan] and Caelan [Doris] very quickly, then we ended up defending for five minutes so didn’t get another set-piece after that.”

Unfortunately for Leinster, Benetton managed to force their way over with the clock in the red to secure a share of the spoils.

For Byrne, it was a brief replacement appearance in a season that has seen the 25-year-old’s career accelerate to the point that he is keeping the 54-times capped Ireland international Jack McGrath out of Leinster’s Champions Cup matchday squads.

Cian Healy remains the first-choice in the number one shirt but Byrne’s form has been superb and has seen McGrath look elsewhere by agreeing to join Ulster next season.

With 14 appearances in the Pro14 and a further four off the bench in Europe, including a 23-minute stint in the quarter-final win over Ulster, Byrne has exceeded his own objectives for this campaign.

Ed Byrne with John Cooney after the game Byrne shakes hands with Ulster's John Cooney after Leinster's quarter-final win. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“My goal at the start of the season was to play Champions Cup so it was great to play in the games I did,” he says. “I’m loving that and getting some really good opportunities this year. Hopefully, I’m putting my hand up now.”

There’s little doubt Byrne is doing so and his progress is all the more enjoyable for the injury hell he went through from 2014 until early 2017.

In total, he missed 28 months with cruel knee injuries. There were dark times when he wondered whether he would ever play again. 

Largely fit for the past two seasons and seemingly getting better with every game, Byrne does sometimes reflect on that horrific period.

“It’s a strange one, it’s there. I don’t like to look back on it too much because the fear of injury for a few months after that was top of my head, just really wanting to get a run of games and keep fit. I’m always trying to keep on top of the little bits that help that.

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“Just in terms of adversity and getting through tough times, it makes those big days very special. I went through an unbelievably tough time there and now to be playing against Ulster two weeks ago, that was a huge moment for me and my family. It does make those days extra special.”

Ed Byrne celebrates scoring a try Byrne scored two tries against the Kings in February. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Leinster have pushed Byrne to concentrate on his “point of difference,” namely the explosive ball-carrying he has had from his earliest days in rugby and which helped him to excel in schools rugby with Clongowes.

In terms of his set-piece work, Byrne says Leinster scrum coach John Fogarty has been an “incredible” influence, having worked with him in the provincial system since the age of 18.

And the presence of seasoned internationals in Healy and McGrath in the “unbelievably competitive” loosehead spot has been key to him learning more each season.

“The lads have been great, I’ve learned a huge amount from them over the years,” says Byrne. “Even chatting through little things with Cian and Jack scrum-wise, little pointers here and there.

“Throughout the whole group, there’s unbelievable competition but great friendships there as well, lads get on really well. It’s very important to strike that balance.”

Off the pitch, Byrne is a popular figure in the Leinster group and part of the Carlow crew along with his twin brother, Bryan, and Sean O’Brien, whose Instagram stories often feature Ed.

“It’s not by choice really but unfortunately, I’m on the end of them,” laughs Byrne.

Byrne’s own rugby story looks like a happier one with each passing week.

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Murray Kinsella

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