Thursday 9 February 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Ben Brady/INPHO Ross Byrne celebrates beating the Wallabies.
# Clutch
'There have been times where I thought I might never play for Ireland again'
Ross Byrne has reignited his Test career and continues to be a key man in Leinster.

A WRY SMILE breaks out on Ross Byrne’s face when you ask him what the highlight of his Ireland career was before he nailed that match-winning penalty against Australia two weekends ago.

He pauses to think, but only very briefly. In his mind, there really isn’t much choice so he points to his Test debut off the bench against Italy in Chicago back in November 2018.

Many people would love to get 14 caps for Ireland but 27-year-old Byrne hasn’t enjoyed too much of it. He’s been part of the squad intermittently, had only two starts, and was completely out of the mix for 20 months before being drafted in as injury cover days before the Wallabies game.

“That’s why the kick meant so much,” says Leinster out-half Byrne. “My Ireland career up until that was a disappointment. It has been pretty frustrating and there haven’t really been any highs other than my first cap, very few moments.

“To have that moment, that’s what you dream about when you think of playing for Ireland. It was special and it has given me a taste for me.”

As he sat on the bench watching that tense battle of a Test last month, Byrne had only one thought: ‘Put me on.’ He was desperate for the opportunity to make an impact. 

And so, when the scrum went to ground with five minutes left and the referee’s arm went out on Ireland’s side, Byrne knew it was his time. He’d only been on the pitch three minutes but he was ready.

“When the penalty was given, I was like, ‘Yes, this is the chance.’ All I wanted was an opportunity to play for Ireland again and there have been times where I thought it might never happen,” he explains.

“I had to take my opportunity because at times in the past for Ireland, I hadn’t taken my opportunity. I just looked at it positively, ‘Go and do what you do.’”

Sitting in The Goat Bar not far from his home in Goatstown, Byrne is in reflective form. That moment against the Wallabies was the biggest in his career so far. You can sense his determination that it won’t be the last big one he has in the green jersey.

ross-byrne Dan Sheridan / INPHO Byrne on his Ireland debut against Italy in 2018. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

He knows there are doubters out there. Some people feel he isn’t a Test level out-half, some say that he doesn’t attack the line enough.

“I find it funny,” says Byrne of that typecasting. “I think there’s a stereotype that ‘He plays deep and never attacks the line.’ There are examples where that has happened but… say, Romain Ntamack, he’s a good example. No one ever says he stands deep. He does play deep at times but because he makes linebreaks, people think he plays flat.

“So there’s a big perception thing. If you make one linebreak and then stand deep for the rest of the game, no one will say you stand deep. If you are that in-between, you can sometimes get boxed into something.

“So people can say, ‘He doesn’t attack the line’ and there have definitely been times where that’s fair criticism, coaches in Leinster have said it to me at times, but there are plenty of times where I’ve done it very well.

“To be honest, I’m very happy where I am in that area at the moment. In the last year, it’s probably been the best it’s ever been and it’s getting better. I’m definitely very happy with where it’s going.”

This kind of stuff would have pissed him off three or four years ago but Byrne says he has learned not to be affected by criticism. His experience allows him to see past it.

“People react so quickly to things. If someone has a bad game, it’s all criticism. If they play well, they’re suddenly incredible again. So I try not to get too high or get too low.”

He believes that those willing to look without pre-conceived ideas will see his much-improved attacking threat, his ability to pick passes and play flat when it’s on.

“I’m never going to be a Beauden Barrett or Richie Mo’unga,” continues Byrne.

“They’re incredible athletes and I would say I have different areas of the game that they might not ever get to, if you know what I mean. But it’s something that’s come a long way since I started playing.”

Some of the negative reviews of Byrne are based on his two Ireland starts, both of which came against England in Twickenham on days when the Irish pack struggled to provide front-foot ball.

“Well, you could go, ‘Where else would you want to start?’” says Byrne when you put it to him that he could have had easier games in which to step up.

ross-byrne-and-garry-ringrose-dejected-after-the-game Billy Stickland / INPHO 2019 in Twickenham was a very tough day for Ireland. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“I mean I’d love to have that time again. Maybe not the 2019 game because no matter who was playing there, it was a disaster! It was awful.”

He’s talking about the day Ireland were hammered 57-15 in a World Cup warm-up at Twickenham. With the sun splitting the stones, Joe Schmidt’s team fell apart. Byrne was at number 10 and ended up missing out on the World Cup.

“We were just completely outplayed,” he says. “You saw how England did in the World Cup and you saw how Ireland did in the World Cup. I don’t think that was solely my fault. That was what it was.”

Then in 2020, he started the Autumn Nations Cup game against the English, although with no fans in attendance due to Covid. It wasn’t as bad as the year before, but Ireland were a clear second-best in an 18-7 defeat.

“There was plenty from that game that I learned, plenty of things I didn’t do well,” says Byrne. “Even what we spoke about around playing deep… I probably played quite deep that day.

“I probably tried to be too coach-like, too pragmatic at times, and didn’t play enough to my instincts. That was a big learning and since then, I’ve taken a massive step forward. Sometimes it’s no harm having a failure if you learn from it, accept it, and move on.”

He has done that by continuing to play excellent rugby for Leinster. Johnny Sexton remains the main man for country and province but Byrne is one of the main men in Leinster too. Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have huge faith in him.

Byrne is now in his seventh full season with the senior squad and his 137 appearances make him one of the most experienced players in the group.

He had interest from abroad last season but ended up signing a new one-year deal with Leinster that covers the current campaign. Byrne has already spoken to Leinster about a new contract and initial discussions have been positive.

He’s as intrigued as anyone to find out who will succeed Lancaster next summer. Byrne hails former attack coach Felipe Contepomi as a ”huge influence who brought my game to a whole new level.” His Kiwi replacement, Andrew Goodman, has been brilliant so far, adds Byrne.

harry-byrne-and-ross-byrne-after-the-game Evan Treacy / INPHO The Byrne brothers, Harry and Ross. Evan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

He loves living in Dublin and being able to spend time with his family, including his younger brother and Leinster team-mate Harry, who has been capped by Ireland too. Ross also has an older brother, Michael, and two sisters, Ellie and Sarah.

Byrne smiles as he explains how being around his six nieces and nephews the day after the Australia game – and the big night that followed it – brought him right back down to earth.

He cherishes being able to play for his native province and appreciates that his team-mates all have the same trophy-hungry mindset as him.  

“I’ve loved nearly every minute of playing for Leinster. There have been lows too but it’s very rare in professional sport that you get to play for the team you grew up supporting,” says Byrne.

“Not just you, but 90% of the squad. It is incredibly unique and I’ve played with some of my best mates. Having Harry there and playing with him too, it’s special.”

From his early days in St Michael’s College, Byrne has come across as a confident out-half who enjoys the tactical challenge of the game. Growing up watching “an insane amount” of Super Rugby, European Cup, and Test rugby meant he was absorbing things subconsciously. He enjoys bossing his teams around.

“I think a lot of my strengths would be in that area in terms of driving the team tactically and mentally,” says Byrne.

There have been a handful of moments when Byrne has shown a fiery side – Scott Fardy probably still remembers getting an earful after a rare poor decision against Cardiff once – but he prefers to play with a calm head.

“Everyone’s different,” says Byrne. “Some players play their best when they’re a raving lunatic. For me, it’s being calm and not over that edge. I find I’m at my best when I have balance.”

He’s one of the best place-kickers around, as he demonstrated again in Leinster’s comeback win over Ulster last night. There have been lots of clutch moments off the tee in recent years, including in Champions Cup quarter-final wins over Exeter and Ulster.

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leinsters-ross-byrne-kicks-the-winning-penalty Inpho / Billy Stickland Byrne kicks the winning penalty against Ulster in the 2019 Champions Cup quarter-finals. Inpho / Billy Stickland / Billy Stickland

Byrne welcomes the pressure that comes with the responsibility. The Australia kick was a case in point.

“You have to enjoy it,” he says. “As a kicker, if you dread those moments, you probably shouldn’t be kicking.

“Everyone has moments in their career where they think, ‘Oh fuck, I don’t want this,’ and that’s happened to me when I wasn’t kicking well.

“I’d be surprised if there’s a kicker in the world who hasn’t had moments like that. But when you’re in good form and confident, you embrace it and enjoy it.”

Byrne has helped Leinster to four Pro14/URC titles, starting the 2020 and 2021 finals ahead of Sexton, as well as featuring in the 2017/18 Champions Cup-winning campaign. But there’s a new fire burning inside him and the rest of the squad now.

Losing the Champions Cup final to La Rochelle last season was “probably the worst I’ve ever experienced in rugby,” explains Byrne, although he adds that the URC semi-final defeat at home to the Bulls two weeks later was arguably worse.

“It hurt. The focus is always to win two trophies, that’s the club Leinster is and we expect that.”

Byrne knows that playing in a successful Leinster team will increase his chances of going to the World Cup next year, so the second half of this season is crucial for him.

He has his hands full away from rugby now too, having co-founded a company called Starfolio.

The platform connects sports stars, media personalities, and influencers – over 400 of them already, though Byrne stresses he hasn’t been “hounding” any team-mates, yet – directly to brands and companies. In a happy coincidence, Starfolio launched the day after Byrne’s kick against Australia.

73W Starfolio 02 Meabh Fitzpatrick Photography Byrne with his brother and Starfolio co-founder Michael Rogers. Meabh Fitzpatrick Photography

He’s hands-on with the company when he’s not training. Byrne’s role includes signing up stars and brands, raising money to build the company, and helping to plot its business plan. His co-founders are his older brother, Michael Rogers, and Mark Lyttleton.

Byrne has an Economics and Politics degree from UCD, as well as a diploma in Corporate Governance, so this is the latest step in building a life outside of rugby. 

Byrne’s parents, Pat and Jane, have always been big on this. His did is the CEO of CityJet and has naturally been very helpful as Ross has worked to get his own company off the ground.

“We’re not Premier League footballers, we don’t earn anywhere close to that money, so we’re not going to be able to put the feet up after we’ve retired,” says Ross.

“Also, the way the game is, your career can be ended very quickly. Dan Leavy is a great example. He was coming into his prime and unfortunately, it was taken away from him, and there’s plenty of cases like that.”

The plan is for Starfolio to quickly expand in the UK, then around Europe, and into the US over the next few years.

However, each Thursday evening, Byrne closes the laptop for the weekend and focuses solely on rugby ahead of his games.

He has big ambitions outside of sport, but Byrne believes the best is still ahead of him in rugby too.

Get instant updates on your province on The42 app. With Laya Healthcare, official health and wellbeing partner to Leinster, Munster and Connacht Rugby.

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