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Dublin: 3°C Monday 12 April 2021

'You want to put your hand up for a World Cup place' - Byrne's ambition

The out-half has become a key man in Leinster’s squad in recent seasons.

WITH THE CLOCK ticking into the closing minutes and the Wallabies chasing a last-gasp try to deny Ireland series success in June, it was clear that Ross Byrne’s debut wasn’t about to arrive.

Sitting on the bench as an Ireland replacement for the first time in that third Test, the Leinster out-half had hoped for a taste of rugby at the highest level but the circumstances dictated against Joe Schmidt sending him onto the pitch.

Still just 23, Byrne has lots of time to start amassing Test caps, but with the World Cup now just 13 months away, he is hopeful the process will begin sooner rather than later.

Ross Byrne Byrne enjoyed being in the Ireland set-up in June. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Despite not playing during the three-game tour of Australia, Byrne feels he benefitted from the experience of being involved with Ireland.

“I had never really been in the set-up before, so at least now I know what the coaches expect, what the environment is like,” says Byrne.

“That’s probably given me an edge over anyone who hasn’t been in there, especially with the World Cup coming up at the end of the season.”

With Ireland’s defensive and attacking systems being different to Leinster’s, Byrne enjoyed getting a different perspective on the game under Schmidt, while the attention to detail was eye-opening.

“You need to be on top of everything the whole time. I suppose as a 10, you might neglect little details, whether it’s the ruck or the tackle, but you can’t let any of that slip up.

“That was, not a shock, but I wasn’t expecting that much detail in those areas. That’s why Ireland are so successful and why things like ball retention are so brilliant.”

The November Test series will be a busy one for Ireland this season, with fixtures against Italy, Argentina and the US, as well as the highly-anticipated meeting with the All Blacks in Dublin.

The hope for Byrne – who was part of the Ireland camp two weeks ago – is that his debut comes in that window and that he doesn’t simply get his first cap.

“It’s not just about getting a cap but establishing myself properly,” he says. “That would be more the idea than just getting one cap. You want to get yourself in there this season, show what you can do and put your hand up for a World Cup place.”

Byrne’s form for Leinster will naturally be important in deciding whether or not he’s involved with Ireland, and the out-half is likely to be a vital player for the province again this season.

Byrne played 1,560 minutes for Leinster in the Pro14 and Champions Cup last season and though he didn’t feature in the final of either competition as Leo Cullen’s side won the double, the out-half played a crucial role in helping them towards both deciders.

Ross Byrne with Robin Copeland Byrne was excellent for Leinster last season. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Involvement in Ireland’s tour meant Byrne only got stuck into pre-season training towards the end of July but he is hopeful of being back in Leinster’s team from the start of the Pro14 season against Cardiff Blues next Friday.

“I’ll find out next week,” says Byrne. “But I’d imagine it will be straight away because I didn’t even play any games on the tour and I didn’t play in the Pro14 final either, so it’s been quite a while since I actually played a game! It would be nice to get back playing sooner rather than later.”

One of the reasons Byrne has excelled under Cullen and Stuart Lancaster with Leinster is his ability to manage games calmly.

Play-calling is something that isn’t immediately obvious to those of us who aren’t on the pitch, but out-halves are tasked with deciding exactly what their teams do in each area of the pitch.

“It’s something I’ve always considered a bit of a strength, it’s something I’m used to,” says Byrne of the responsibility.

“I’d probably hate the game if I wasn’t controlling things and calling everything. I’m still trying to improve it because it can always be better.

“It’s great having Johnny [Sexton] there because he’s one of the best at it, if not the best.

“It’s something I have always found a little bit easier than other things. I was never the quickest or the biggest, so it’s something I had to put a lot more emphasis on, but it probably came more naturally when I was younger – I don’t know why.”

Detailed scouting of the opposition feeds into Byrne’s play-calling, but he stresses the need to feel how the game is flowing in each moment.

“If you’ve been in that situation before, you almost know instinctively what calls go very well for the team in that moment.”

Byrne and Sexton, while competing for the same position, have a good working relationship and “bounce a lot of ideas off each other as well; whether we think this play or that play is better.

“We probably prefer different plays, so we might put our own little twist on it,” explains Byrne, a graduate of Economics and Politics in UCD.

Lancaster has been another big influence in Byrne’s development in the last two years, although the out-half is having a little bit of trouble living up to his senior coach’s expectations around watching rugby in his spare time.

“I should probably watch a lot more, as Stuart is always telling me! He tells us not to watch it as a fan but to learn anything and everything when we are watching games.”

Stuart Lancaster Lancaster has been a positive influence on Byrne. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Lancaster has had a real impact on Byrne’s out-half game, helping him to be more comfortable commanding his team and bringing leadership to the role.

“In one way, he’s probably simplified my thinking,” says Byrne. “If we see space somewhere, let’s just go there now, as opposed to before there was a bit of a culture to go three or four phases to get there. He’s saying, ‘If you see something, let’s go to that straight away’.

“He’s also got me to attack the ball, attack the line a bit more, which is something that I’m always trying to continue and something that needs a bit of work, but I think it’s come on a lot in the last season especially and he’s been brilliant at that.”

Another aspect of the game in which Byrne has stood out has been kicking, with his cross-field kick passes becoming something of a trademark.

“I’ve always really enjoyed kicking,” says Byrne. “It’s something that is maybe a little bit neglected at times. When it’s done properly, it can be a nightmare for defences and also the way teams are defending – a lot are almost putting 14 in the front line – it’s tough to break them down, so you have to have it in your game.

“That variety opens up the attack for the whole team, so it’s probably something that needs to be more emphasised more these days.”

Byrne says Leinster kicking coach and performance analyst Emmet Farrell has been particularly helpful in this area, with his knowledge of opposition teams marrying well with his understanding of the technical skills involved.

“He gives you a good picture of the opposition’s backfield and that allows you to hit that space almost without looking at times, or just a quick glance,” says Byrne.

“He’s not bad at the old place-kicking either, he still likes to participate in the odd competition!”

This season will be a huge one in Byrne’s career as he looks to earn a World Cup spot with Ireland, and it’s a thrilling time for his younger brother, Harry, who is now part of the Leinster academy.

Harry is also an out-half and played for the Ireland U20s last year, having come through St Michael’s like his brother before him.

Barry Daly celebrates scoring a try with Ross Byrne Byrne is set for another big season. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Their father was a flanker, “believe it or not,” and the Byrne brothers grew up in a rugby-mad household, working on their kicking and passing in the garden and watching each other’s games.

“We’d probably be the biggest critics of one another!” says Ross, who is happy to see his brother making promising progress.

“Harry is going well, he’s been training with us a bit and he’s been pretty sharp. He’s underage for U20 again next year, so he will probably be away a good bit but it’s a big year for him.

“Who knows, he might get an opportunity and hopefully he takes it… maybe not takes it too well!”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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