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‘He’s learnt a huge amount from Johnny’: Leinster’s Ross Byrne primed to star on the biggest stage

No one can question the durability and consistency of Leinster’s outhalf

When Johnny Sexton was first treated by the Irish team doctor Ciaran Cosgrave after England’s consolation try in the Grand Slam coronation it was evident from their dialogue and his slow walk from the pitch that the Leinster and Irish captain feared the worst.

That much was confirmed and announced 10 days later when Sexton was ruled out for the remainder of the season. If his Six Nations farewell couldn’t have been scripted any better, the same could not be said of his 15th and final season with his province.

These Champions Cup weeks, and especially this one, must be particularly tough for Sexton given that akin to targeting a first Grand Slam in Dublin, the thought of a Champions Cup final at the Aviva was one of the few positives he could relay to his Leinster teammates in the immediate aftermath of last season’s final defeat in Marseille.

No doubt Ross Byrne would have had a strong inkling in the immediate aftermath that he would be the number 10 driving Leinster in the knockout stages. While Byrne had started 18 of his 40 Champions Cup appearances at that point, this would be different. In a sense, the post-Sexton era at Leinster began then.


So far, so good. It helped that the baton was passed on at a time when Byrne’s form and confidence had never been higher, having nailed that clutch kick against Australia and become the de facto back-up to Sexton for Ireland as well at long last in the Six Nations.

As one of Leinster’s key team leaders along with James Ryan and Garry Ringrose, he has helped drive the shop off and on the pitch, and it is clear from the regularity with which he talks in on-field team huddles than he has the respect of his teammates.

Byrne plays flatter to the line much more in the last two seasons, has instigated the starter plays expertly, his passing is excellent and he generally pulls the strings in a way that makes him hugely appreciated by the Leinster coaching staff as well as his teammates.

“I think he does everything really well,” Lancaster said of Byrne last November. “He makes the team tick, there is no doubt about that. I think his core skills are very good, his passing, catching off both hands, his understanding of the game is excellent, again he’s not a young player, he’s 29 I’d say,” guessed Lancaster, when actually adding a year to Byrne’s age.

“He’s played for us in many big games. I’ve coached him now for seven years and he knows what I’m going to say before I even say it. We know each other that well, there are times when I’m thinking things in the box and he’s doing them on the field at the same time I’m thinking it.

“So yeah, we’d be very aligned in terms of how we see the game. He’s learnt a huge amount from Johnny and so he’s had a great role model to follow and he’s always had great people pushing him from behind whether it is Ciaran [Frawley] or Harry [Byrne] or Joey [Carbery] when he was here.”

Byrne also has a very strong kicking game, particularly those crossfield kick passes, and especially off the tee. Byrne’s goal-kicking was again world-class when landing seven out of seven in the semi-final win over Toulouse.

He is the second leading points scorer in this season’s Champions Cup behind his La Rochelle counterpart Antoine Hastoy, but whereas the latter’s kicking ratio is 78%, Byrne’s is 88%.

It’s time to move on from comparing all other current Irish outhalves with such a generational player as Sexton, but such was the quality of Byrne’s performance against Toulouse that the former Leinster outhalf and sometime pundit on Newstalk, Andy Dunne, went so far as to say: “Johnny Sexton couldn’t have done any better”.

Rewind to the end of the 2017-18 season and it should be recalled that in an effort to spread the minutes between the trio of outhalves in Leinster that Joe Schmidt and David Nucifora first approached Byrne with the suggestion that he move to Ulster.

Byrne had the strength of mind to politely refuse, reasoning that why should he move when he was already being given plenty of game time with his native province? Indeed, in that 2017-18 season, Byrne played 26 times for Leinster, 19 of them starting, and accumulated more minutes, 1,560, than any other player in the squad.

Why, indeed, should he have moved? Certainly his insistence on staying has been totally vindicated, and one safely ventures that the Leinster coaching staff are equally pleased Byrne did so.

According to one well-placed source in Leinster, both Leo Cullen and Lancaster informed Schmidt and Nucifora that Joey Carbery would have been better served staying with Leinster and at fullback, where he’d mostly played that season. In any case, the unfortunate Carbery has lost his place in the Irish pecking order to Byrne and now cannot even make the Munster bench.

Apparently, again from one Leinster source, one of Felipe Contepomi’s parting recommendations to Andy Farrell and the Irish coaches was that if they needed someone to land a clutch kick in the World Cup, then they needed to bring Ross Byrne.

In any event, when fate decreed that Byrne was summoned from relative obscurity to 24th man before being named as a replacement an hour before kick-off to being afforded the difficult clutch kick to beat the Wallabies, very few would have doubted his ability to bisect the posts.

“As soon as he put the ball down, I was absolutely confident he was going to kick it,” said Lancaster a few days later. “I was at the game live, and I had no doubt he would kick it.”

As Lancaster also says, no one can question Byrne’s consistency. Save for the Covid-affected 2019-20 campaign, when his 18 games amounted to 925 minutes, the durable Byrne has played circa 1,100-1,200 minutes per season for Leinster.

In 25 games for province and country this season he has almost played 1,300 minutes and, of course, has been on the winning side every time.

Furthermore, his win-loss record in 43 Champions Cup games for Leinster is 40-3, while his record in 21 starts now reads 20-1.

Now, of course, comes the big one, perhaps the biggest game of his career, not least as the one loss he has suffered in a blue jersey with the ‘10′ on his back was in the semi-final defeat by La Rochelle two seasons ago.

Nor did Byrne have his finest 20 minutes after replacing Sexton for the last quarter in Marseille, with one unusual knock-on, albeit he did nail his one shot at goal and thereafter the tide was entirely with La Rochelle.

Last week Caelan Doris spoke openly to the Sunday papers about feeling he left a big performance behind him in the final and his need to atone, and one ventures he is not alone, with Hugo Keenan another who clearly wasn’t 100% right physically on the day.

Byrne too will be as motivated as anyone for this game. Were he to guide the good Leinster ship home (and Jack Crowley to do likewise for Munster next week in Cape Town) then it would augur well for both the World Cup and post-Sexton era.

It wasn’t until Contepomi went down injured in the 2009 semi-final that Sexton was afforded his chance at the age of 24. Now 28, Byrne’s time is now.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times