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'Ross Byrne reminds me of Ollie Campbell - he'll step into Sexton's shoes'

Pundits have been unconvinced by his performances but Ross Byrne has quietly risen to become Leinster’s most unheralded star.

Time to kick on: Ross Byrne in action.
Time to kick on: Ross Byrne in action.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

IT WAS THE summer of ’18. Ross Byrne took his seat in the middle aisle at Sydney for the long trip home.

Up there in the processed air of the thrumming tube, Byrne had time to think. They’d stop off in Abu Dhabi for a couple of hours before taking the last leg of the journey back to Dublin; 21 hours of flight-time, more than enough for someone to figure out what they’re going to do next.

Around him Ireland’s internationals were in end-of-season party mood. Thirty-two of them boarded that flight, 31 of them able to reflect on their contribution to a successful Australian tour. The odd one out was the man in the middle aisle, the only member of the travelling squad not to get a minute’s action.

In life, everyone has a choice. Good guys can become bad guys; reality TV stars can get a proper job; unused subs can become sour. Alternatively, they can step off an aeroplane on a sunny Monday morning in Dublin Airport and decide they want to become Johnny Sexton. You just have to believe in your own storyline.

The Ross Byrne story begins a little earlier. It’s the second week of December, 2016. Sexton has gone down injured, so too Cathal Marsh. Leo Cullen checks his spreadsheet and remembers he has only one fit out-half registered with the EPCR. He turns to his fourth-choice ten, scribbles his name on a form and sends it away to the offices in Geneva.

In all the previews to Leinster’s game against Northampton that week, Ross Byrne is barely a footnote, filed away under the section: in other news. Sixteen minutes in, Joey Carbery goes off with an ankle injury, and the player whose name was prefixed ‘medical swap’ is introduced for his European debut. Almost straight away, he fires a crossfield kick for Rory O’Loughlin to score. Leinster win 37-18 in Franklin’s Gardens.

leinsters-ross-byrne Byrne's crossfield kick against Saints in '16. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Five years on, it’s a bigger European game Byrne is preparing for this weekend, his 100th in a Leinster shirt, his 11th Champions Cup start for the four-time winners. Leinster, by the way, won the previous 10.

Some commentators are saying this represents a changing of the guard. The king is dead. Long live the king. But it is not quite that simple and not just because Sexton is the type of character who could reappear out of the coffin to kick a winning penalty. “Anyone who writes Johnno off is crazy,” said Darragh Fanning, the former Leinster winger. “He’s plenty of rugby left in him.”

But there’s another truth. Cullen has been changing the guard back-and-forth for four years; Byrne playing almost 30 more hours rugby than Sexton for Leinster in that timeframe. This year alone, Sexton has started only five games for his province, going off injured in four.

It all means that the guy who many observers believe isn’t even the best out-half in his family has done a lot more than just serve an apprenticeship. He has become the unlikeliest and most unheralded star in recent Leinster history. “Ross is about to play his 100th game for Leinster,” Fanning says, “and let’s be blunt here, you can’t be lucky 100 times. He’s vastly underrated.”

There’s evidence to back up that assertion. It is two years now since Leinster lost a game with Byrne as their starting 10, a run that includes two successive Pro14 finals. If he had a different personality, he’d shout loudly about that. But he doesn’t court publicity according to colleagues of his within the Leinster camp and has been known to turn down endorsement opportunities.

johnny-sexton-and-ross-byrne-celebrate-with-the-guinness-pro14-trophy Byrne and Sexton celebrate the Pro14. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

This opportunity is different, though. This is a Champions Cup semi-final, Leinster’s biggest game in two years and a match that could propel Byrne’s career onto a different level.

“What I see in him is the unspectacular; what I mean by that is that he does not do anything outrageous for the sake of it, a bit like Ollie Campbell back in the day,” says Eddie O’Sullivan, the former Ireland coach. “That’s something you look for as a coach because a No10 in modern day rugby is a bit like a quarterback in the NFL. The load has got heavier because they have so many decisions to make.

“I’ve been through this. I had Rog and Humps (Ronan O’Gara and David Humphreys) when I was Ireland coach, so I was lucky. In other jobs, I wasn’t so fortunate with my outhalves and trust me playing without a proper 10 in the modern game in rugby is an absolute nightmare. If you said to me, what is the first name on your list, I’d go 10. Without a 10, you aren’t going anywhere.”

Three weeks ago, in Sandy Park against the defending European champions, Exeter, Leinster were without a 10. Worse again, when Sexton went off, they were 14-7 down. It was their No22, Ross Byrne, who helped turn it around.

“Again, I go back to the Ollie Campbell comparison because Ross Byrne is that type of player,” says O’Sullivan.

ollie-campbell-1982 Ollie Campbell in 1982. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

 “Every time he goes out, he has done a good job. He’s assured, he kicks well. The transition is seamless to the extent that no one is saying Leinster won’t win in La Rochelle because Johnny Sexton is not playing. Instead they are saying; Leinster could win this because, with Ross Byrne, you have someone who is not going to cause a blip.

“At the end of the trail here, he has huge potential, to the extent that he could become the de-facto Ireland No10 once Sexton goes. And that’s putting Joey Carbery into the loop as well. He has come to the No10 position with Leinster and Ireland, and has come to it in a funny way, in the sense that he has been the bridesmaid in Leinster effectively.

“So he has had to set out his stall as a bridesmaid to Sexton – and no would argue that it should be otherwise – but despite living under that shadow, he has managed to get capped for Ireland which is a hell of an achievement because if you go back through Irish rugby history, when has this sort of thing happened before, where a back-up out-half at provincial level gets capped for their country?

“Byrne has come through the Leinster crucible, a club where it is very hard to get a gig at. Worse again, every time he got a Leinster jersey and went on the field, he was compared to Johnny.

“People might say that there’s less pressure on you when you are a back-up – but I’d say the opposite because you are judged against this guy every time you touch the ball.”

It was all well and good when Sexton was the only person Byrne was being compared with. But then Harry – his younger brother – came along. Harry has a step. Harry has the X-Factor. Harry has Brian O’Driscoll singing his praises. Harry could get a gig modelling Peter Mark’s hair products if he wanted one.

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harry-byrne-scores-his-sides-third-try Harry Byrne has emerged in the last year. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“He’s certainly a good player, Harry,” says Andy Dunne, the former Leinster and Harlequins out half. “But so is Ross and we shouldn’t be shy making that point because I feel he has been undervalued. He certainly does things to make life easier for the players around him.

“If I think to my own career, I was the total opposite in terms of style; I was probably a bit more egocentric, wanting to pull a rabbit out of a hat to turn a game which was fine if it worked; the opposite if it didn’t. Ross, in contrast, never does things that would be unhelpful to the team and his ability to bring others into the game is a big attribute. I rate him highly.”

Plenty don’t. Pundits, both on television and in print, have been unconvinced by his performances, particularly for Ireland. Again, there is a reason for this. Twice he has started for Ireland, each time at Twickenham and each time Ireland have lost, 57-15 in 2019; 18-7 a year later.

“Right, let’s deal with that 2019 game,” says Dunne. “Joe Schmidt said Ireland overtrained on purpose ahead of that match, part of their overall preparation for the World Cup. So, the pack had the shit kicked out of them and the starting 10 – Ross Byrne – got absolutely no protection.

“It’s always the case that the nine or the 10 on a losing team gets unfairly blamed when the result goes south; and gets an undeserved percentage of credit when the team wins. That day, Byrne got too much criticism when the problems were elsewhere.”

Worse than being criticised, he got overlooked, not making Schmidt’s World Cup squad. So back he went to Leinster. He has played 28 times for the province since that Twickenham disaster, Leinster winning every game he has started.

“Those statistics are instructive,” says Dunne. “It shows he has a lot of toughness, plenty of resolve. Like, the guy never gets injured.” Sexton, in contrast, does – lasting just 28 minutes against Exeter in the Champions Cup quarters.  

Enter Byrne. “The transition was seamless,” says Dunne. “In fact, I felt Leinster improved significantly as that game went on.”

A week after Exeter, Fanning caught up with his former team-mate. He remembers the diligent youngster who was always one of the last to leave the training field, recalls an A game where he was on the end of one Byrne’s trademark crossfield kicks and remembers the summer of 2018 when there was all this fuss about Carbery leaving for Munster. “It says a lot about Ross that Leinster didn’t let him go,” says Fanning.

“And I can see why they didn’t. He’s your perfect pro, never injured, always giving his all, whether he’s the No22 in the squad or the starting 10 and he deserves this chance today because as I said, there is a reason why you get to play 100 times for Leinster. It isn’t because you’re lucky. It’s because you are good.”

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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