Byrne was excellent against Exeter. James Crombie/INPHO
Calm head

Leinster will have utmost faith in Byrne's ability to step up in La Rochelle

The 26-year-old was superb last time out against Exeter.

HE NEVER TENDS to look very flustered, even when things aren’t going perfectly, so it was little surprise to see Ross Byrne calmly jog onto the pitch in Sandy Park three weekends ago to replace Johnny Sexton.

The Ireland and Leinster captain was forced off after 27 minutes with a head injury that continues to keep him sidelined, meaning he will miss this Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-final clash with La Rochelle.

It’s an obvious big blow for Leinster not to have their skipper and first-choice out-half available but Byrne’s latest composed performance in blue will have reassured Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster that they’re in good shape for the visit to Stade Marcel Deflandre.

Byrne has invariably stepped up at out-half when Leinster have called upon him for big occasions in recent seasons. He only recently turned 26 but is set to make his 100th senior appearance for Leinster this weekend against La Rochelle. 

Last time out, Byrne made an instant impact. Having kicked to touch, his first attacking involvement was a slick pass out in front of Hugo Keenan, allowing the fullback to run diagonally and draw in last defender Stuart Hogg for Jordan Larmour to score.

Byrne’s conversion from the right-hand touchline was accurate as he underlined his readiness to lead Leinster to their remarkable comeback victory. The former St Michael’s man was soon nailing a 46-metre penalty to edge Leinster in front.

His defensive work, which isn’t always a strength, was excellent against Exeter as he aggressively launched himself into tackles, completing all nine of his attempts. Sexton has had a big edge on other out-halves in terms of defence so Byrne’s quality in that area will have encouraged the Leinster coaches ahead of another big test in La Rochelle.

Byrne also shipped two high tackles from Jonny Hill and Jannes Kirsten in that Exeter game but picked himself up to slot three points after both.

ross-byrne Byrne will relish the big chance in France. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

In between, his double skip pass wide to Larmour on penalty advantage allowed the right wing to finish strongly for his second try. 

Byrne isn’t always a consistent threat to the defensive line with his own ball-carrying but his passing and decision-making have improved notably in the last three years, meaning he is adept at sending team-mates into space. 

The Ireland international will need all of the aforementioned skills for what is the biggest challenge yet in Leinster colours – leading the team from the start for an away semi-final in Europe. Cullen and Lancaster will have the utmost faith in his ability to excel.

In 2019, Byrne started the Champions Cup quarter-final win over Ulster in the absence of Sexton and was central to Leinster coming from behind to advance into the semi-finals. The out-half scored a try and fired over the match-winning penalty even after he had to deal with cramp.

Byrne did something similar in this season’s Guinness Pro14 final when he had to return to the action after being replaced by Sexton, who was then forced off injured. It wasn’t the game-deciding kick, but Byrne slotted a penalty despite having suffered with cramp.

Last time Leinster visited Thomond Park, Byrne came off the bench in place of Sexton and delivered a pivotal grubber kick that allowed Keenan to link with Larmour for the match-winning try and, again, Byrne slotted the conversion from wide on the right.

So while Byrne has had a frustrating time with Ireland so far in his career, there is no doubting his ability within Leinster.

The province will also be relieved that Ciarán Frawley is due to be available this weekend as out-half cover with Sexton injured and Harry Byrne a doubt after his hamstring injury against Munster last weekend. 

Leinster would naturally prefer to be travelling to La Rochelle with Sexton fit and firing but they will back Byrne to guide the team with his usual calm head.

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