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Ross Byrne pulls off understudy role to perfection on World Cup debut

Outhalf helps Ireland finish strongly after taking over from Johnny Sexton in the second half

Ross Byrne made his World Cup debut against Tonga in Nantes. It was a typically unfussy, unflustered, composed and low-key performance for the 28-year-old, but then such is life for a player who has probably been understudy in matchday 23s to some bloke called Johnny Sexton more than anyone else.

What’s more, Sexton has been hogging things a little even by his standards. First, he equalled an Irish individual World Cup point-scoring record and became Ireland’s oldest international last week. Then, last Saturday, Sexton overtook Ronan 0′Gara’s all-time Irish points scoring record of 1,083 with a 38th-minute try which he converted himself to move on to 1,090 and counting.

It just so happened that Byrne, himself beaming broadly as the Irish replacements warmed up behind the Tongan in-goal area, was the first man to slap Sexton on the back after he touched down. Although in his delight and desire to soak up the crowd’s acclaim, Sexton was oblivious before again being submerged by team-mates and subs.

“To be fair to him, he deserves it,” said Byrne. “He’s been absolutely incredible for well over a 10-year period. I’m delighted for him. There is not really much I can say about him. Look, he’s got plenty more to go in the next few weeks.”


But Byrne appreciates as much as anyone what Sexton has had to do in order to reach and maintain such high standards for so long.

“That’s the thing, he’s been doing it for so long. The longevity he’s had has been incredibly impressive. Very few, if anyone else, has done that. It is remarkable.”

Byrne doesn’t appear to stress himself unduly and so took last week’s omission from the match 23 in his stride.

“Look, it’s a World Cup, that’s the way it goes, I just had to do the best I could in preparing the team for Romania. We’ve a great squad here and everything is geared towards the team being successful.”

Nor was he given any advance warning that he might be coming on at half-time against Tomga: that wouldn’t be Andy Farrell’s style. With the frontrow also replaced, and William Havili landing a scrum penalty to trim Ireland’s lead to 31-16, before Vaea Fifita broke clear only to lose the slippery pill, for a brief period there was the threat of this game becoming uncomfortable.

But with Byrne pulling the strings, Ireland’s attack began to find its rhythm to pull clear with four more tries. This was another good night for Byrne, reminiscent of the steady hand he brought to that second half in Bayonne against Samoa, and underlined why Mike Catt cited the “authority” Byrne brings.

This was a landmark day in his career, too, and the culmination of a long, winding journey.

“It certainly has yeah,” admitted Byrne with a wry grin. “I’m absolutely delighted, most importantly we put in a good performance second half. Start was a little bit sticky, we were a bit stop-start, we got into our rhythm which was pleasing.”

Besides, being so well-versed in replacing Sexton makes him well suited to the role. Watching on from the stands, Byrne also has a good sense of where the space is when he joins the fray, at whatever point.

“Yeah, it’s something I’ve become used to over the last few years of my career. I’ve done it plenty of times, so yeah, it’s see what’s happening throughout the game and if there is something I can add, or if there is any different pictures or whatever. And obviously we’re talking in the changing room as well, different messaging and stuff like that, just trying to implement the plan as best I can.”

Sexton’s form at 38 is augmented by Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony at 34, and particularly Bundee Aki at 33.

“I think we’ve a great blend,” said Byrne. “There is all those lads you’ve listed with unbelievable experience, but then there is a big group of lads who are just under the 30 mark who have gained a serious amount of experience in the last few years, whether that is internationally or at club level. I think across the board, the team is in a growth period, or a good age.”

Byrne also landed four conversions from four in the second half.

“Ah well, every little point counts doesn’t it?” he joked.

Henceforth, he can chase down Sexton’s record, whatever it transpires to be?

“Don’t get me started on that!”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times