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'I've probably relaxed a little bit about my rugby, I used to be a bit tense about it'

Munster hooker Kevin O’Byrne is playing some of the best rugby of his career.

Kevin O'Byrne and Chris Cloete.
Kevin O'Byrne and Chris Cloete.

Updated Feb 18th 2021, 10:06 PM

IT’S A WEIRD time to be having the season of your life. Given his current run of form, Kevin O’Byrne would like to be getting out on the pitch as frequently as possible, but this of course is no normal season.

Saturday’s game against Edinburgh will be Munster’s first in three weeks, and signals the start of an intense block of five straight weekends of Pro14 action.

Compare that to January, where the province played four games in total and saw two rounds of Champions Cup crossed off the schedule. In December they played just twice.  

Amidst that disruption O’Byrne has been playing arguably the best rugby of his career, with the hooker already making as many starts (six) and scoring more tries than in other season in red.

When things are going well, you just want to keep going.

“I’d be of the favour of trying to keep a bit of rhythm going,” he says. “But at the same time, this year has thrown preparations out the window. There is no such thing as the perfect preparation, you’re as good as you can react to the scenario that you are in in that week. 

“It’s not ideal, but I don’t think we’ve had an ideal week yet, as such. So we just get on with it.”

The 29-year-old might not have had such a relaxed attitude a few years ago. It’s easier to take things in your stride when things are going well on the pitch, but O’Byrne admits that his form has also coincided with a mental adjustment on his part.

“When you get a run of games it helps. In previous seasons I may have been in and out for whatever reason. When you get that run of games, form comes, it’s a bit easier to keep it rather than having that stop-start thing.

“I’ve probably relaxed a little bit about my rugby, I used to be a bit tense about it but I have relaxed a little bit. Those would be two major factors.”

Having come through the Connacht Academy, O’Byrne made his Munster debut in 2014. His early days with the province were promising, racking up 11 appearances in that debut season, but the harsh realities of playing top-level professional rugby soon hit.

kevin-obyrne O'Byrne during a Munster training session earlier this week. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

A start against Scarlets in February 2015 would be O’Byrne’s last for the province until December 2017, sandwiched either side of 15 caps off the bench. Some of that was down to injury, but even in the spells where he was fit, the healthy competition at Munster made the path to the first team difficult. 

There were times where O’Byrne wondered if he belonged at this level.

“Coming into it late, I signed my first pro contract at 23 or 24, I was probably a bit highly strung about the whole thing and just needed to chill out and realise that I was good enough,” he says.

“I just needed to work on what I needed to work on every week, get on with it and not be over-thinking it.

“It wasn’t like a light bulb moment. It was just over time that I figured it out. The seasons started to come and stack on top of each other and I kind of noticed it season on season.”

The province’s current intent to play a more expansive brand of rugby seems to be bringing the best out of him. As well as getting all the basics of playing hooker right, O’Byrne has become more involved going forward, chipping in with four tries so far – he had only scored three across his entire Munster career before this season.

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Those tries are only part of the story. O’Byrne has also shown nice hands with a number of gorgeous passes, adding an extra weapon to Munster’s attacking game.

His teammates have noticed the change, with CJ Stander describing O’Byrne as an “undercover 10″ a few months back. 

The Stephen Larkham effect?

“Yeah, look Steve is looking for us to move the ball around and to use our skill-set, whatever that is, and I suppose I am fortunate to have those kind of passes or whatever they are in my skill-set, so if I get an opportunity to use them I am not afraid to.

“It is good to have that freedom and then have the confidence to do it as well.

“It is not like the other fellas can’t do it. You have seen that the other hookers can do it as well but it is something that I can bring to the table every weekend. It is probably part of my point of difference, along with my set piece as well.”

Not only is he enjoying his rugby, O’Byrne doesn’t have to deal with some the off-field stresses facing a number of his team-mates. Having signed a two-year contract extension with Munster last season, he isn’t one of the unfortunate group trying to negotiate a new deal during a global pandemic.

“I’m not going to lie, it definitely was good to get it signed last year,” he says.

“I think I signed last year during a break, literally as Covid was coming into Europe. So I was lucky. But look, what’s to say it’s not going to be the same next year, how are we going to know they’re going to have 80,000 people back in stadiums?”

The 29-year-old is thankful that rugby is going ahead at all the moment, given the ongoing uncertainty that comes with Covid. It’s something which is still a topic of discussion in the dressing room.

“It is. And I suppose it’s not the only place I’m having these conversations. I’m having these conversations with friends that are outside of rugby as well, that are in similar situations. 

“So it’s there. I suppose it’s a bit of an added stress for fellas, but I think we’re all pros, we all get along with it. We’re still lucky to be playing rugby.” 

 

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