Ross Byrne is a reassuring presence as Leinster seek to make Champions Cup final

Outhalf is as fresh as a daisy mentally after missing some of season through injury

Ross Byrne: ready for Northampton test. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Leinster coped without Ross Byrne’s big-game temperament and composure in the pool phase of the Champions Cup, but there has been something very reassuring about the 29-year-old being back at the helm at 10 as the stakes have risen in the knockout stages.

An ever-present starter in last season’s campaign when beaten in the final, Byrne missed all of Leinster’s four pool matches in December and January this season due to the torn bicep he suffered in the early stages of the derby win over Munster at the end of November.

His healing powers were such that he returned in mid-February and he had four outings under his belt ahead of the 36-22 round of 16 win over Leicester before producing one of his finest performances in the 40-13 quarter-final statement win over La Rochelle.

Ronan O’Gara has revealed he’d been surprised how well the Leinster outhalf had coped with being targeted in the quarter-final. Although O’Gara had reputedly said much the same to Byrne in the home dressingroom afterwards, the latter was not remotely inclined to take it as a backhanded compliment.


“Not really to be honest. Whatever he wants to say is fine. I don’t read too much into the media.”

While Byrne was “happy” with his own performance, he maintained: “The most important thing was the performance of the team. I’m not too worried about how I perform as long as the team is going well. That’s my main objective.”

And that’s the thing. Byrne is the ultimate facilitator and team player. Almost surreptitiously, he’s become only the third player in Leinster’s history to score more than 1,000 points, his haul of 1,055 only being bettered by Felipe Contepomi (1,225) and Johnny Sexton (1,646).

Garry Ringrose and Ross Byrne. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Byrne has also accumulated a wealth of big-game experience, with 22 Irish caps supplementing his 157 appearances for Leinster, of which 46 have been in the Champions Cup. Granted, plenty of Leinster players have impressive win-loss records in the Champions Cup, but Byrne’s is 42-4 and, of his 24 starts, it is 22-2.

Such experience should be beneficial come Saturday when Leinster host Northampton in a capacity Croke Park.

“I think sometimes these games are slightly different, how close they can be and how much they can hinge on big moments,” he says. “That’s probably a big benefit that we have as a squad, we have so much experience at club level as well as international level. It’s just being able to tap into all of that.”

It seems a tad cruel if unavoidable, especially for such a high-achieving organisation as Leinster, that the two defeats Byrne has suffered as the starting outhalf in the Champions Cup probably haunt him the most, namely the semi-final against La Rochelle three seasons ago and last May’s final.

“I think they’re always going to be there, I don’t think you can erase stuff like that from your mind, and how painful it was,” he admits, before stressing that the team is more concerned with fulfilling its potential and performing to their best.

Unusually, Byrne has only played nine games for Leinster this season (two of them off the bench), which amounts to just 472 minutes, and just 137 minutes for Ireland. This is the least rugby he has played at this stage of the season since his debut campaign in 2015/16. By contrast coming into the last two Champions Cup semi-final weekends he had played over 1,000 minutes.

But this has a flip side.

“I feel great physically, which is probably a little bit unusual at this time of year. Sometimes it’s a little bit the opposite so from that perspective it’s great.”

And mentally, he’s as fresh as a daisy. “Yeah, exactly that’s the big thing, to have a challenge ahead like this is brilliant.”

Ross Byrne kicks against La Rochelle. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

He also had ample time to digest Leinster’s remodelled defence under Jacques Nienaber.

“I don’t know if there are any benefits to being injured, but I’d lots of time to learn all the stuff that Jacques wanted us to take on board and the different roles within the system. Then I’d a few weeks of training as well before I actually played so I’ve had plenty of time to bed in.

“He’s been brilliant. You can probably see it in what we’re doing on the pitch, but he’s been amazing and his level of detail has been great. It’s brilliant for weeks like this and he’s been there and done it at the highest level – twice!”

On Monday, Leo Cullen showed the team clips from the 2009 semi-final when Leinster beat Munster at a packed Croke Park. Byrne was at the final three weeks later in Murrayfield, but he cannot even remember where he watched that benchmark semi-final.

“In the boozer,” he jokes.

While he could probably placekick blindfolded at the RDS or Aviva, Byrne played down the effects of kicking at a new ground, and its different dimensions, instead likening it to an away game and using the Captain’s Run to adapt.

His own Gaelic football career is, he admitted wryly, somewhat limited.

“I did play a little bit for Kilmacud Crokes back in the day. I kind of got dragged into it by accident to be honest. They were down numbers one day, so I went up for a game and enjoyed it. I kept playing for a few years. I stopped at about 14.

“I never got to play at Croke Park unfortunately, but I’ve been there a fair few times. It’s some stadium and it’s such an iconic stadium in this country. With it [Saturday’s game] selling out so fast as well, hopefully it’s a very special day.”

Having the former Leitrim and Dublkin player Declan Darcy aboard as Leinster’s performance coach could be especially helpful.

“The experiences he’s had over however many years with Dublin, how successful they were, it’s great to tap into him in these weeks.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times