Last November against Australia was one of those far-fetched storylines that sport throws up. Something of a forgotten man as well as a 24th man, Ross Byrne had only been called up as cover for the first time in a year and eight months that week and was a late addition to the bench. Cue grabbing the ball, pointing to the sticks and landing that difficult, match-winning, 76th-minute penalty.
“Never in doubt,” quipped a smiling Andy Farrell to him afterwards. Ross Byrne hadn’t gone away indeed.
But last Saturday against Wales was different. This time Byrne was in the squad from the start of the preparatory camp in Portugal. Then, afforded the last 11 minutes, he helped Ireland to regroup and push on for the fourth try which had eluded them for over 50 minutes. There was even a head-down, hard straight carry from Dan Sheehan’s touchline offload in the build-up to Josh van der Flier’s try. Not exactly what Byrne is known for.
“Probably surprised myself with the carry, I’ll say!” he admitted, laughing, when chatting with the media at the IRFU’s HPC in Abbotstown on Tuesday.
“No, it was brilliant to get the bonus point, which was very important. And I suppose to experience the atmosphere as well in Cardiff for 10 or 12 minutes, or whatever it was. To steer the team home for the bonus point, yeah it was brilliant.”
He’s more a part of things now too.
“November was very different, pretty last minute you could say, whereas to be in from the start now, get full preparation and see how the whole environment works and know the plan inside out, that’s been brilliant.
“As a ‘10′, you just want clarity. To be in from the start, you get that straight away.”
As well as being a very competitive animal, Byrne doesn’t lack for self-confidence, and when asked if that kick against Australia had been a turning point, responded in typically dry manner.
“It was probably a turning point for all of you,” he said, with a wry laugh.
As to whether he has been underappreciated in the media, Byrne said:
“It doesn’t really bother me to be honest. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions. Maybe they did. I’m sure you know better than me!”
Byrne’s durability, volume of games, and numbers are probably the best of any Irish outhalf in recent years, and his winning ratio has gone to a new high so far this season. He’s started and/or finished 15 of Leinster’s 17 wins, and now two Irish victories as well.
His body language now is of a player who feels he belongs.
Byrne is also 27, after all, and has played 143 times for Leinster, so when asked where his belief emanates from, says: “Probably from experience, I’ve played a lot of games in the last number of seasons. I’ve been involved in a lot of big games for Leinster, it’s come from that.
“The coaches I’ve had over the last number of years at Leinster have been great to me. It’s a combination of both. Being patient, which isn’t always easy to do, but I just have to wait for my chance and when I get it hopefully take it.”
Prior to the Australian game, Byrne’s last Test had been the last minute of the 2021 Six Nations finale against England, when also starting the day as 24th man, and recalls touching the ball once. He must have doubted whether opportunity would ever knock again.
“It definitely crossed my mind. It would cross anyone’s mind that the chance was gone. But the only thing I could do was play week-in, week-out as best I could for Leinster.
“As generic as it sounds, there was no point in me worrying about anyone else. I could just worry about myself.”
Prior to that English game, he played the second half of the 15-13 loss at an empty Aviva against France – Ireland’s last home defeat – and on a different day, as the French defence flirted with the offside line in the endgame, Luke Pearce might have given Byrne a 45-metre shot at glory that day too.
“I think the team has grown massively,” he says exactly two years on. “You just see how the team have achieved in the last year, they’ve beaten every team other than France. Even what they did in November and in obviously in the summer in New Zealand, and last week as well.
“Obviously that game [in 2021], there was no crowd which was obviously a strange time for everyone. I think the support we had in Wales was incredible. After the game, you saw the number of people that travelled. Hopefully this week it will be buzzing and will make a big difference.
The biggest improvement?
“I think the attack is phenomenal. It’s up there with the best in world rugby. I think we probably saw that at times [last Saturday] particularly at the start of the game. I think we were clinical, which you have to be in international rugby, but also defensively.
“There are lots of work-ons and there are things we’ll have to improve on if we want to beat France but I think overall the team is in a strong position across all areas to be honest.”
The perception, particularly across the water, seems to be that Ireland have simply dipped into the pool of Leinster players and the Leinster playbook.
“There’s a bit more to it than that. Leinster have the majority of players in the squad but it’s definitely not just a Leinster team. I think you see that from the individuals but also how we play, there are some subtle differences as well. I think what Ireland have done over the last couple of years has been incredibly impressive, but it is just about trying to drive forward.”
Not that he’d give any clues as to the subtle difference.
“I can’t give away trade secrets!”
He’s back in the inner circle now.