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'I was like a sporting junkie, hooked on the adrenaline, the pursuit of perfection'

Shane Byrne won 41 caps for Ireland, played four tests for the British and Irish Lions and is fondly remembered as one of the best hookers of his era. Yet his career is touched with sadness and regret.

Shane Byrne on the charge against France.
Shane Byrne on the charge against France.
Image: INPHO

SHANE BYRNE FELT like a tourist in his own town. March 2003. Ireland and England were going for a Grand Slam and a quarter of a million people were milling around Dublin’s streets sniffing out a ticket.

Rugby had become chic. There was a swagger to that Ireland team and the whole bleedin’ country. Employment had never been higher, taxes lower. Economic realists who preached caution couldn’t be heard over the backslappers and the spoofers.

Confidence flowed through the city like Magners through throats on a sunny day. Not here, though. Not on this bus where the passengers had a fair idea of the damage Johnson, Dallaglio, Hill, Back, Wilkinson and Robinson were capable of causing. “No weak links anywhere,” recalls Byrne.

It isn’t the only things he remembers. “Ireland! Ireland!” supporters boomed, drowning out the din of police sirens as the bus made its way from Booterstown into Merrion.

Byrne was sitting two rows from the back, with his headphones on, music in his ears, history in his head. Then, as the bus passed the RDS, as the crowds swelled and the voices got louder and louder, he switched off his heavy metal and took in the view.

jonny-wilkinson-and-shane-byrne Byrne leaps to block Wilkinson's drop-goal. Source: INPHO

He’d never seen anything like this before, not for rugby, not in this town. When he made his debut just a couple of years earlier, it was on the edge of the rugby world. Dinamo Stadion, Bucharest. Romania versus Ireland, 1,900 people there to watch it. Now there were 1,900 people outside Paddy Cullen’s pub.

By the time the coach pulled into Lansdowne Road, the butterflies were playing hide and seek in his stomach. “You had to douse the hype, calm yourself down.” If only it was that easy. There was still half an hour until the warm up and that’s before you mention the red carpet saga with Martin Johnson and President McAleese or the anthems. They always got to him. “You’re doing all you can to stop crying like a baby but inside you are balling.”

How come?

Right where do you start? The Six Nations, for me, is the greatest tournament in the world. You’ve over a century of tradition. So that is in your head, those games you watched as a kid, that sense of belonging, that this is our national team; the rivalries, you know all that. But when you played, it suddenly dawned on you that you could add to that history. I loved it, that pressure.”

And hated it.

“When I look back now, the thing that gets to me a bit is that I never relaxed enough to enjoy my international career as much as I should have.”

In a way that shouldn’t make sense.

But then you listen to his story and it does.

***

This is a tale of two halves with a little bit of extra time thrown in at the end.  

It starts with an admission that when he first picked up a rugby ball, he was ‘terrible’; a player on the Blackrock Under 13 Barbarians, which was the diplomatic term they gave the seventh best team in that age-range. “I’d only ever played Gaelic football until I was 12. I just couldn’t get it together at all on a rugby field.” Eventually he did. A summer cycling in and out to work from Aughrim to Arklow built up his stamina, evenings doing weights added muscle to his arms. Then something else clicked. “Ah, you hit into people. That’s what this game is about.”

He was on his way. Within a year of finishing school he advanced to the AIL with Blackrock, the first of 18 seasons in senior rugby.  “I’d no ambition to do anything else.”

shane-byrne Byrne in action for Blackrock in 1994. Source: ©INPHO

Soon he would. Leinster called in 1992, Ireland in ’93. “I was a young lad, a country bumpkin from Aughrim with a mullet, cannon fodder for the senior players,” he says.

But he was able for them. “Rugby back then … you were either on your way to or coming back from someone taking the piss out of you.”

He didn’t care. The hierarchies, older players sitting at the back of the bus, younger ones at the front, he got all that. When complimentary passes for post-match functions were slipped under bedroom doors the night before internationals, he didn’t blink when a veteran snapped them out of his hand. “It happened to all the young lads, something you wouldn’t tolerate now.”

You see way back then they played by different rules and not just in terms of awarding four points for a try. In 1994, ‘the last great amateur tour,’ the dirt-trackers who failed to make the 21-man Test squad were instructed to go on the lash on the night before internationals.

Willie Anderson (the assistant coach) led the charge; it was compulsory to be there.”

And then the following morning at 8am there’d be a knock on the door “and you were bate out the place to do a fitness test. It was madness, sheer madness”.

Did the fun make it worthwhile? Well, yes and no. With his socks rolled around his ankles, and his mullet dipping below his shoulders, he wasn’t your typical jock. “Get a haircut,” Noel ‘Noisy’ Murphy (the Ireland team manager) told him when he landed back in Dublin following that Australian ’94 tour.

“No!” came the reply.  

It just so happened that when the next Ireland squad was named, Byrne’s name wasn’t on it. Fast forward to 1997, another suggestion from a different coach to get a short back and sides.

shane-byrne Byrne excelled for Leinster in the '90s. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I wouldn’t really conform; I was always my own person. Perhaps if I had have acted the clown, I would have been accepted with the in-crowd. I just didn’t care what people thought. I wasn’t going to change.”

Instead he was short-changed. First called into an Ireland squad in 1993, it was 2001 before he was eventually capped. Rival hookers came and went. Steve Smyth, John McDonald, Allen Clarke, Terry Kingston, Ross Nesdale.

Keith Wood stayed the course, so too Byrne. He was on the Ireland B squad before they changed the name to A internationals and over the years he wore out all the half-forgotten towns on the dirt-track circuit: Mount Isa, Lismore, Pontypridd, Ebbw Vale, Ayr, Newport, Quimper.

Blackrock and Leinster were his sanctuaries when times got tough and self-pity took a hold. One of his old coaches, Joe McDonald, took him aside, offering therapy. “I’m thinking of jacking it in, it’s really getting to me, I’ll never get that cap,” Byrne told him.

McDonald listened, looked at him but didn’t exactly give him a cuddle.

Look, if you f***ing quit, you’ll never get capped,” McDonald barked. “But if you stay going, you might get one. So, stop blaming everyone else and just get on with it.”

That was the moment. From that point on, he remembered what it was like to enjoy the game, impressing for Leinster when the great touring teams, Australia, Northern Transvaal, rolled into Donnybrook. “I did well.”

Yet not well enough in the eyes of the selectors. “By the late 90s it was getting to me, to the degree that it became an unhealthy obsession,” he says. A break-up with a long-term girlfriend was a consequence of this. “I was just constantly grumpy.”

Team mates noticed. As a rookie, he was taught that perfection was the only acceptable form of behaviour for anyone standing in a lineout. His personal tutor – Neil Francis – was a kind, forgiving type. “Ha,” says Byrne. “I remember once getting my throw slightly awry – and Neil just stood and glared at me, oblivious to the match going on around us.” Byrne told him where to get off.

Malcolm O’Kelly was another recipient of the hooker’s demands. “If something ever went wrong at a lineout I blamed all around me. Mal got it more than most. Now, trust me he was capable of giving a bit back.” Nonetheless by the time the Ireland cap eventually came, a month shy of his 30th birthday, it wasn’t just Byrne who was relieved. “There was a great quote from Malcolm after my debut. ‘Shane may be thrilled to have got his cap; but not as thrilled as us. He’s been an absolute bloody terror’.”

ireland-celebration O'Kelly (centre) was thrilled when Byrne finally got capped. Source: ©INPHO

The wait was over, the weight was lifted. He kind of relaxed but didn’t really. There was always another goal; a Six Nations cap, a World Cup one. He was there when Ireland beat Australia for the first time in 23 years, South Africa for the first time in 39. He won a Triple Crown in ’04, packed 41 Ireland caps into four years and didn’t want it to end.

But there was not much choice. “I was always patient around contracts,” Byrne says. “Like – the first terms I signed as a pro (in 1995) was for £30,000 (punts) and a car. And as far as I was concerned that was good money. Mates would have made way more in the business world. But this was what I wanted.”

The caps eventually came; the money went up – but not significantly. “I was always playing second fiddle, was never the main man getting the contract, always one of the lowest paid in the (Ireland) squad. The one time I had hoped to get a decent wedge was in 2005. My contract was up. I was first choice for Ireland but some of the players who I was ahead of in my position were earning more.”

He felt he had a strong hand. The previous four years had been the most successful Irish rugby had known in decades. More pressingly, he’d been selected by the Lions for that summer’s tour to New Zealand.

Never, ever, did I dream I’d be a Lion,” Byrne says, “because in my head, that was a place where the legends lived, Willie John McBride; JPR; Barry John. Not me.”

He had all this in his head as he walked into the IRFU’s boardroom for contract talks. “And what did they do? They offered me a 30 per cent reduction on what I was on,” says Byrne. “I was devastated. The last thing I wanted to do was leave. I’d been patient and always thought that someday I’d get what I wanted (financially). It was an absolute punch in the guts.”

Byrne had a price in his head; the IRFU officials a different one in theirs. They gave in a little but out of self-respect as much as financial self-protection, he turned it down. And the upshot was that when he flew to New Zealand with the ’05 Lions, he was technically unemployed.

***

Being a Lion was a dream, a dream and its sad reflection. He remembers landing in New Zealand, getting bussed to the team hotel, seated in a meeting room, handed his jersey by Bill Beaumont. “You’re here now,” he said to them, “you’re a Lion. For the rest of your lives, no one can ever take that away from you.”

And at that precise moment, Shane Byrne stopped thinking about being jobless. “Nothing rugby wise ever felt better than that,” he says.

If only the story could end there – but it’s only in the films where you get perfect endings, everyday life tending not to be so kind.

shane-byrne Byrne in the first test on the 2005 tour. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

He learned this the hard way after Clive Woodward had made a pledge on the first day of the tour. Every single player, he declared, would be given an equal opportunity to make the Test side. “An honourable thing to say and something he stuck by,” says Byrne. “But unfortunately Clive got the concept of that tour all wrong.”

Injuries didn’t help. Richard Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio were leaders. Gone. Brian O’Driscoll was captain. His test series lasted two minutes. Tom Shanklin got crocked, Danny Grewcock got suspended and poor old Shane Byrne got burned.

After a win in Wellington, it was clear he was going to start the Tests. When Woodward called out the team on the Tuesday before the first test, he heard Gethin Jenkins’ name, then his own and can’t remember hearing anything after that. Then the panic started. An imprint of the lineout calls had been found by the New Zealanders. “Management got paranoid.”

Andy Robinson, the forwards coach on that tour, suggested a new set of calls.

Byrne resisted, believing the better policy would be to tweak their original plan and stick with what they’d practised. The motion was defeated. So were the Lions, 21-3. “Do I get any pride from my career? I don’t. You see the problem is that by being obsessive, by seeking perfection, I can only remember what I didn’t do, rather than what I achieved.

“So first test as a Lion, it goes terribly wrong for the team; the lineout – the area you can affect more than anything else – goes disastrously. From being on such an emotional high, preparing for your Lions debut, to things going so badly wrong, that was just so hard that you can’t begin to think of the horrors you felt afterwards.

Think about it, I’m the reason that hookers don’t call lineouts anymore. We did, more or less, up until 2005. Rarely since.”

Life moved on. Rugby did too. The Leinster stalwart who lobbed balls into the Milanese air in the province’s inaugural European trip in 1995, who tasted defeat in two Heineken Cup semi-finals, who never wanted to leave the province, retired from rugby in 2007 two years shy of their first European Cup.

There are regrets.  

His final game as a professional, in a Saracens team who lost a Premiership semi-final to Gloucester, was as fit as he ever felt. He was approaching his 36th birthday and the curtain had fallen. “You see,” he says taking us back to the original theme, “I wish I had have enjoyed it more. That I never did came down to the fact that I was like a sporting junkie, revelling in the adrenaline, the pursuit of perfection, the challenge of it. So when I finally got capped, I was going to make sure that I did as well as I could. I was probably a pain in the hole for the other guys around me.

“Anything I could influence, I had to go for perfection. Nothing else would do. Looking back on my career now, I still view it through a critical eye. I know this sounds very ‘woe is me’ and if it sounds like I didn’t appreciate what I had, well that’s not the case. I loved it. I thrived in it. And I miss it.”

He tried other things; Gaelic football again, triathlons, iron men events. “Nothing was ever the same. The thing you were put on this earth to do, the thing you excelled at, that’s gone by your mid-30s. It was a wrench giving it up.”

Yet he hasn’t really. Approaching his 50th birthday, he’ll try out for Arklow Seconds next season if Covid restraints ease.

And when he hears the sad stories of old rivals from his generation suffering from brain injuries, he knows he’s lucky, especially as he recalls the end of his career, assuming  it’d end in pain.

“I thought a shoulder would go, a knee would go, something would go. But nothing ever did.”

Except for one thing: time.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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