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Confidence, conviction and calmness personified - Ross Byrne's journey to the Test arena

The 23-year-old out-half is poised to make his Ireland debut in Sydney on Saturday after an excellent season with Leinster.

FRANKLIN’S GARDENS ISN’T quite the European citadel it used to be, but rewind a couple of seasons and the home of the Northampton Saints under the lights was a formidable place to go for any side.

Not many visiting teams went there and emerged unscathed from the raucous atmosphere usually generated by a passionate home crowd, let alone come away with a bonus-point win, but that’s exactly what Leinster’s young guns did back in December 2016.

Leinster’s Ross Byrne Ross Byrne in action against Northampton back in December 2016. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Many will remember the game for the second-half dismissal of the then England captain Dylan Hartley for a vicious arm to the back of Sean O’Brien’s head, but it was a significant night in the development of several young players, most notably Ross Byrne.

With Johnny Sexton sidelined with the hamstring injury he had sustained on Ireland duty during the November Tests, the door opened for Joey Carbery at out-half, who stepped in to make just his second Champions Cup start.

But when the former Blackrock College man was forced off injured just 15 minutes into the game, Byrne — who had made just seven senior appearances at that point — was thrown in at the deep end for his first taste of European rugby.

It was quite the introduction for the 21-year-old, but almost instantly he showed why Leo Cullen had placed so much faith in him with a match-winning moment of individual brilliance.

With the game in the balance after a 60-minute arm-wrestle, Byrne unlocked the Saints defence with a pinpoint cross-field kick for his fellow St Michael’s alumnus Rory O’Loughlin to dive over in the corner and silence the Gardens.

Leinster tacked on the bonus-point try through Jamison Gibson-Park not long after to complete a stunning Friday night raid, and it was Byrne, in the absence of Sexton and Carbery, who came off the bench to pull the strings and orchestrate proceedings.

A week later, he started the reverse fixture at the Aviva Stadium as Leinster stamped their authority all over the pool with another big win over the Saints, and while those seven days very much paved Byrne’s route to the top, he had embarked upon his journey to professional rugby years before that.

UCD’s director of rugby Bobby Byrne had a big part to play in the out-half’s development and recognised a special talent when he arrived from down the road at St Michael’s.

Byrne had helped the Ailesbury Road school to Leinster Senior Cup success as a fifth year, and while defeated in the final by a Garry Ringrose-inspired Blackrock side a year later, he had very much built his reputation as one of the outstanding young players in the province.

A tall, strong teenager, Byrne’s physical presence meant he stood out on the pitch but it was the manner in which he played, and the striking confidence in his own ability and everything he did which saw him emerge as a truly prodigious talent.

“The thing about Ross, even coming into UCD, he had a lot of maturity about him and could take responsibility to call the shots on the pitch,” Byrne tells The42.

Ross Byrne 3 Byrne drove St Michae's to Senior Cup success in 2012. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“The other thing was that he was tactically very shrewd and capable of orchestrating and controlling a game. He was just so focused and you could tell he had all the attributes to make it to the top.”

UCD take great pride in the achievements of all their players who represent the club, but particularly when one of their own goes on to achieve the ultimate pinnacle of representing Ireland on the international stage.

Byrne is poised to do just that in Sydney on Saturday after being named on the bench for Ireland’s third and final Test against Australia, with his performances for Leinster last season and application in training with Joe Schmidt’s squad in recent weeks being rewarded.

The Ireland head coach yesterday said he has been impressed by Byrne’s attitude and diligence on the training paddock during the tour, while pointing to the fact he ‘is a smart kid’ and has been able to pick things up quickly in camp.

While his kicking, passing and playmaking ability is an obvious strength, Byrne’s rugby intelligence has shone through in his capacity to stay cool under pressure, but also emerge as a beacon of decision-making calm in the Leinster backline last season.

From an early age, he showed astute tactical awareness and even in his early years in St Michael’s, had the confidence and understanding of the game to question certain plays and challenge why they were being implemented by coaches.

Above all, he had a steely determination to succeed and would often drive standards on the pitch with his own performances, leading from the front in the pivot position and orchestrating much of the success the Michael’s teams he played in enjoyed.

In that Senior Cup-winning side of 2012, Byrne successfully converted all 17 of his place-kicks during the campaign as an extraordinarily gifted group, including O’Loughlin, Dan Leavy and Ross Molony, powered their way to glory.

But it was in the first round game against Roscrea that year in which Byrne demonstrated his big-game temperament as he nailed an injury-time penalty to send Michael’s through at the expense of the previous season’s finalists.

It was just one example of Byrne’s ability to thrive under pressure and those hallmarks of his game have carried through to the pro ranks, with his tenacity to seize an opportunity when it presents itself so crucial in the steps he has made along the career ladder.

“Every challenge Ross has met, from school’s rugby, to the Ireland U20s to playing for Leinster A and now being at a senior international level, he has stood up confidently to all those challenges,” Bobby Byrne continues.

Ross Byrne He has made 49 senior appearances for Leinster, scoring 228 points. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“He got an opportunity at Leinster that maybe even he didn’t expect to get as quickly but when it came he really took it and while you can never be sure a player is going to fulfil their potential, Ross had the mentality to achieve everything he has.

“Being able to take your chance when it comes is absolutely crucial and he has done that consistently.”

After representing Ireland at U20 level, Byrne advanced through to the famed Leinster academy and continued his development under the expert guidance of Girvan Dempsey, eventually making his senior debut for the province against Edinburgh in September 2015.

He would go on to make two further appearances that season, including a first start against Scarlets, but the 2016/17 campaign proved to be Byrne’s real breakthrough year in blue, as his consistently excellent and composed performances saw him become Sexton’s understudy.

By his own admission, it was a coming of age experience but also meant he emerged from it with the exposure required to continue on an upward curve and make incremental improvements across all facets of his game.

“I think his personality has helped too,” Bobby Byrne explains. “He is a great guy but he was very focused from the very first time I met him and just very single-minded and determined to improve all aspects of his game. You have to have that mindset.

“He always had an excellent kicking game and a really good range of passing but I think we’ve seen over the last two seasons that his decision-making has improved significantly.

“He’s so laid back but has a steely determination. One of the things about him is that he’s cool under pressure, he doesn’t get rattled easily and I just think his composure is one of the reasons why he has developed as quickly as he has.”

The UCD director of rugby recalls an Ulster Bank League game against Terenure at Lakelands when the out-half, only 19 at the time, had the vision to spot a team-mate in space on the left wing and the technique to execute a perfect cross-field kick — not too dissimilar to Franklin’s Gardens — to create the try in the corner.

“He always had the the confidence to try things and that’s an important attribute to have as an out-half,” Byrne adds.

One thing that stands out is Byrne’s mindset and unflustered nature, which in turn is evident in his style of play and the swagger in which he goes about his business on the pitch.

Byrne’s inclusion in Schmidt’s summer touring party follows a season in which he featured 26 times for Leinster, 19 of which were starts, including the home and away Champions Cup games against Montpellier.

Ross Byrne Training with Ireland in Sydney this week. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

His strong form meant he deputised for Sexton regularly, playing 1,560 minutes at out-half last term, and was one of the main reasons why Carbery has been forced to move to Munster in search of more minutes in the number 10 jersey.

Byrne would have been disappointed to miss out on Ireland’s Six Nations squad but impressed sufficiently during his involvement in the wider panel at Carton House to convince Schmidt he is next in the pecking order ahead of Munster’s Ian Keatley.

What he lacks in acceleration and electric footwork, Byrne makes up for in his clever game management and varied kicking game, while he has an excellent understanding of momentum and the flow of a match, which will be key if he is sprung into action in Sydney on Saturday morning.

“Knowing Ross, I would have a lot of confidence in him and his ability. He’ll step up at international level when the opportunity arises, whether that’s this weekend or further down the line, I’ve no doubt about it,” Byrne adds.

Confidence, conviction and calmness personified, it seems Ross Byrne has always been destined for the big stage.

He’s earned his chance, now it’s about seizing it.

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