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'He just had it upstairs, straight away you could see the potential'

Harry Byrne, who is set to win his second cap for Ireland today, has long stood out as a special talent.

MIKE RUDDOCK LIKES to be cautious when it comes to blooding young players, and especially young backs. They often need a bit of fixing up before being exposed to the heat of battle. Ruddock has his own ideas on when to throw the ball around and when to take the simple option. 

So it was a very un-Mike Ruddock move when in October 2018, he handed a debut start to Lansdowne’s new out-half for a crunch home game against Cork Con, a repeat of the previous year’s AIL final.

Harry Byrne had yet to have even one training session with his new teammates. By half-time, Byrne had scored two tries on the back pitch at the Aviva Stadium. He finished with 20 points in a 35-27 win for Lansdowne. 

“There was a lot of talk about him at the time, a lot of hype that he might be better than the brother, but people hadn’t seen too much of him playing,” remembers Colin Goode, who was Lansdowne’s Chairman of Rugby at the time, and is now club President.

“I remember we had a five-metre scrum outside our own line, and our scrum-half Tim Murphy got pulled into a ruck. Harry stood in at scrum-half, hit a 15, 20 metre skip-pass out to the fullback, who passed to the winger and bang – we scored under the posts. Most guys would have just cleared their lines. Because of Harry we were gone and scored a try. Mike looked over and said ‘That guy just has it.’”

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Watching on from the sidelines was Scott Deasy, Lansdowne’s veteran out-half who had been part of the conversations when the club looked to bring Byrne over from UCD. Deasy’s involvements would be limited that year due to work commitments and he was planning on retiring at the end of the season. That plan was that Byrne would learn from, and then succeed Deasy as Lansdowne’s starting 10.

“That first game he played for us against Cork Con, it was quite a big game, and I remember thinking ‘Holy shit, this guy is good,’” says Deasy, whose rugby CV also includes Cork Con and Munster.

harry-byrne Harry Byrne during his time with Lansdowne. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“He came into a Lansdowne team that had, not intimidating characters, but fellas who had been at the club for years, and Harry was well able to tell them what to do. Not in an aggressive way, but as a 10 coordinating his players around the pitch and telling them where to go. He knew what he wanted from his forwards and what he wanted us to do as a team in certain areas of the pitch.

“That’s admirable in a guy who was only 19 when he signed for us. I was going ‘Fuck it, I need to try keep my position!’”

Older brother Ross had already tread the path Harry wanted to follow, having debuted for Leinster in 2015 and accumulated over 50 caps by that point. The younger Byrne held high hopes of not only emulating his brother, four years his senior, but eclipsing him.

When Lansdowne came knocking in the summer of 2018, Byrne was hungry for a new challenge. He was already an Ireland U20 international and part of the Leinster Academy, but at club level, was ready to move from UCD to a team where he could step up and become his own man, having already been Ross’ brother at St Michaels, UCD and the Leinster Academy.

Goode remembers meeting with Byrne and his father to discuss a potential move.

“We said it would be an opportunity for him to showcase himself,” Goode says. “But Harry knew that himself. He didn’t want to be second fiddle to anybody, especially his brother.”

Even then, Harry was keen to show he was not just Ross 2.0. The two are very different players, with Harry’s points of difference including a tendency to play flatter and display a touch more creative spark with ball in hand. There is more flair and more unpredictability compared to the ultra-reliable, if less glamorous style that has served Ross so well with Leinster.

“He doesn’t quite have a chip on his shoulder, but he does have that kind of younger brother mentality,” Deasy says.

ross-byrne-and-harry-byrne Harry and Ross Byrne during an Ireland training session. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“My first impressions were that he was a super confident young fella. He was just so much further along the graph in terms of his understanding of the game and his technical and skilful ability than I was at that age.

“At 21 I was still probably learning the mechanics of kicking and trying to find a technique that would suit me or learning from ROG or whoever at the time, whereas he had already put in a lot of hours and work on that, which shows how much the game had moved on in that 10 years. He was very confident in himself, very confident in his ability, and very quick to integrate with the Lansdowne lads.”

“Sometime the college teams, Mike Ruddock used to say they were like Fiji – they want to run everything all the time – but they might not be as structured around the pack,” Goode adds.

At Lansdowne, Harry was behind a good, strong pack and he had that extra second or two to do what he wanted. His speed of pass and speed of vision were just stand out straight away. He could see things in a split-second. I remember thinking he just had it upstairs. Straight away you could see the potential.”

Byrne flourished in his first couple of games with the club, and as a result of that potential, didn’t play as often for Lansdowne as he or the club expected. 

Always looking to blood fresh talent, Leinster pulled Byrne close to their senior squad. In early 2019 he was back for a second year with the Ireland U20s before a Leinster senior debut followed that September, and when fit, he has continued to push the more experienced Ross for a place in the team. However his progress has been slow and steady, Byrne climbing up the ranks despite suffering a series of unfortunately timed injury issues. 

Yet Byrne has plenty of admirers in the right places. Last year, Andy Farrell fast-tracked him into Ireland camp ahead of other, more experienced players, and he was included again for this year’s autumn Tests despite playing just 22 minutes for Leinster this season.

So, what is it about Byrne that makes him such an exciting prospect?

“When you are trying to bring the ball to the line and trying to execute a pass or trying to put a player through a hole or whatever, you are opening yourself up to be smashed,” Deasy says.

If that happens a couple of times in a game, the natural thing to do is be less aggressive and step back a bit, but every time I see him play he is still right up there, right on the line.” 

“He’s quietly unassuming,” says Goode. “But on the pitch he’s not afraid to do things or try things, he’ll take control and take responsibility for it. 

“Sometimes he did get a bollocking once or twice from Mike for trying to run too much or take on too much, or trying to do fancy stuff in the opposition 22 instead of giving simple ball, but that’s all part of the learning at that age.”

Yet it’s one thing to do that at AIL level, and another to carry that same confidence to the provincial and international stages.

“He seems brave,” says Ronan O’Gara, a man who knows a thing or two about the intricacies of playing 10 at the highest level.

harry-byrne-clears-the-ball-despite-magnus-bradbury-and-pierre-schoeman Byrne in action for Leinster in 2020. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“He seems willing to have a go. He seems to trust his instincts and seems capable of getting his backline going. He seems fast and looks a good game manager. He has an awful lot of strings to his bow, but his challenge will be his consistency of performance. Can he back up big game after big game after medium game after big game after medium game?”

And if he is to survive at this level, he’ll also need to nail the uglier parts of the position.

“He’s well able to defend,” Deasy continues. “He’s actually quite a big man, he’s over six foot, around 90kg, so he’s well able to look after himself physically from a defensive perspective.

“He has taken his fair few injury breaks over the years, and I don’t know if that is because the physical toll of being so young and playing at such a high level, or if he just needs to learn a few bits about looking after himself, I’m not sure.” 

Byrne is in line to win his second cap for Ireland today, having been named on the bench for Ireland’s final Test game of the year against Argentina. Going by recent squad selections, he appears to be third in line for the No 10 shirt, despite a relative lack of exposure at senior level.

To date Byrne has played just 25 games for Leinster. His total Champions Cup experience boils down to 18 minutes off the bench against Montpellier last December.

The talent and potential is obvious, but the body of work is not quite there.

Not that that will bother him. If there’s one thing the 22-year-old isn’t short of, it’s self-confidence.  

“I would say he relishes it (the hype), given the confidence he has in himself,” Deasy says.

I knew he was going to be a professional. It was just the basics of his game, his kicking technique, the way he brought the ball to the line, the variation on his passing, the way he was able to tell people what to do and where he wanted them… When you marry that natural ability with the environment that Leinster have and the way they are able to bring players through, he was already on to a winner.”

After another frustrating start to the season, the hope is that today’s game against the Pumas can act as a launching pad for what feels like a significant year for Byrne. Following the internationals, Leinster will soon be back in Champions Cup action, and before you know it, the Six Nations will be on the horizon.

“He’s definitely ready for it,” says Ireland attack coach Mike Catt. “He’s got a very good skillset. He’s very comfortable on the ball. I like to think that the experience around him, they’ll be able to help him through it (against Argentina). 

“He’s a very confident player, loves the way Leinster play and the way we are playing at the moment, his skillset compliments that. It’s another stepping stone for him.”

That style of play currently being employed by Ireland is perhaps exactly why Byrne has managed to skip the queue. Byrne, Johnny Sexton and Joey Carbery all have their own points of difference, but they are also all 10s who can play on instinct. 

“It’s down to the decisions that they make,” Catt continues, explaining how the Ireland coaches condition their outhalves for Test rugby.

“If there’s a hole for them to run it, run into it, don’t just go through with a play because it’s been called. 

“But also I think the amount of front-foot ball. When we get on the front-foot ball you get the flow, you get the momentum in the game, and you really are stressing defences and it makes your life so much easier as a 10. I think it’s crucial to get those things right in a game. If we can get that right then Harry, Joey, Johnny or whoever plays at 10, and your 9s, are going to cause chaos.”

The goal for Byrne now is simple: play regularly, and produce.

“What Harry Byrne needs to do is place himself consistently on a rugby pitch,” O’Gara says.

“He hasn’t done that this season, he’s had injuries for Leinster, he’s been selected but had to pull out, then another game he did play but got injured. As a young out-half you need a lot of reps, you need a lot of minutes in the jersey and he’s been deprived of both of those.

“The Irish management obviously have high regard for him and he’s been announced in the squad and they’re looking to give him an opportunity, but it’s very hard for the Irish management to do anything (previously) if the player himself can’t present fit on the Monday of a Test week.

“In that regard it’s frustration for the player, it’s frustration for the coach and for the whole team, because all the feedback on him is that he’s an exceptional young player, but as you know at Test level it’s very hard to talk about potential because you’re not judged on potential, you’re judged on the now.”  

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Ciarán Kennedy

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