Ambitious Byrne still aiming to play his part for the Lions
Having missed out on the autumn internationals, Clermont Auvergne’s Lee Byrne is hoping to use Sunday’s Heineken Cup clash against Leinster to push for a place in the Lions squad.
The starting fullback on the 2009 team, Byrne admits he is still hoping to make the summer tour of Australia despite falling out of favour with Wales.
A string of injuries and the rise of Leigh Halfpenny saw the 32-year-old fall down the pecking order at international level. But Byrne has been rejuvenated since trading the Ospreys for Clermont last season, and he says he is back to “playing with a smile”. Hoping to force a way back into the Welsh squad before February’s Six Nations opener against Ireland, he insists he has no regrets.
Bread and butter
“Of course not – it was a great move for me. I’m playing week-in, week-out and I’m playing reasonably well this season. This is where my bread and butter is at the moment and whatever else happens, it happens.”
Byrne was forced off early in Clermont’s Heineken Cup semi-final defeat to Leinster last season but he has had success against them in the past – not least a match-winning performance for Ospreys in the 2010 Magners League final.
If selected, he sees this weekend’s Pool 5 game against the European champions as a chance to remind Lions coach Warren Gatland of his ability.
“I think it’s on every player’s mind, quietly. Obviously Wales first and foremost, it would be great to get selected again. But I think it’s the perfect opportunity really – shop window in the Heineken Cup to show everybody what I’m capable of doing.”
Not only are Leinster the two-time defending European champions, but the recent rivalry between the teams – coupled with Clermont’s two-point lead in the pool – makes this the French club’s biggest match of the season. Tickets for the game sold out within an hour of going on sale.
Byrne says his team are excited about having the chance to “put what happened last year to bed early”. The former Scarlets player was rested in the 30-22 loss at Toulouse last weekend and says he is disappointed that – if he does start – he will not face Rob Kearney.
“I wish him well in his recovery but you want to play against the best players. He’s at the top of his game and it would have been nice to come up against him.”
Leinster could do with the European Player of the Year against a Clermont side unbeaten at home since November 2009 and who have scored 12 tries in two European matches this season. An obvious reason for that strike-rate is the return of Napolioni Nalaga. Twice the leading try scorer in the Top 14, the wing went awol after Clermont won their first French championship in 2010.
French rugby newspaper Midi Olympique eventually tracked him down in his native Fiji, where it turned out Nalaga had been involved in a family dispute and was temporarily prevented from leaving the country.
A season at Western Force in Australia followed, but Nalaga’s heart was always with Clermont. Since returning this summer, the 26-year-old has scored five tries in the Top 14 and three in Europe.
“He scores tries for fun,” Byrne says of Nalaga. “With [Sitiveni] Sivivatu on the other wing, we’ve got probably two of the best wingers around on either side of me.