Leinster’s Ross Byrne: ‘You watch those games as a kid and that’s all you want to do, you want to play in them’

As Leinster face Toulouse in the Champions Cup final, Byrne is mindful that not every player will get a start, but all will have made a contribution

It’s been six years now since the suited, non-match day players invaded the pitch on hearing the full-time whistle in the San Mamés Stadium in Bilbao. They had more energy than their drained Leinster team-mates, who had won a taut, try-less Champions Cup final against Racing 92 by 15-12 and, just as understandably, their joy was unconfined too.

All of them rightly felt they were a part of the achievement. When players and coaches talk of a title win being a “squad effort” they are not paying lip service to the notion. Whether prepping the match day squad in training that week and/or playing in games en route to the final, it truly is a squad effort. Because it has to be.

In the countdown to next Saturday’s Champions Cup final between four-time winners Leinster and five-time winners Toulouse, Ross Byrne perhaps appreciates this better than most. He was among the pitch invaders in the San Mamés, having played in all six pool games, when starting both the home and away wins over Montpellier.

“When you’re not in the 23 it is tough but everyone in here knows what everyone in the squad does every week,” he says. “There are loads of lads who will miss out on the 23 this week but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t played an enormous part in us getting to the final. Without them we wouldn’t be in the final. That’s the nature of rugby. Some lads miss out because of how attritional it is and some lads miss out through selection. So it is very tough for some lads.


“This group as well, we have been together for what feels like a very long time now and we have been through a lot together. Some of us have won and some haven’t so it is very important that the lads playing on Saturday try to deliver for those who don’t get to play.”

Indeed, a year later, in the 2019 final against Saracens at St James’ Park, Byrne was an unused replacement. He subsequently played the last 17 minutes in the defeat in the final by La Rochelle two seasons ago in the Stade Vélodrome and last year started in the final when again beaten by La Rochelle.

“We have obviously learned some pretty harsh lessons over the last few seasons,” Byrne freely admits. “A big thing in the last two finals is how close they have been. Even the semi-final against Northampton, it came down to the last play, and a lot of the games we have had this season and in recent seasons have come down to that. So, it is the importance of taking your chances and doing the simple things well.”

Ask him if it took him a long time to recover from that loss, Byrne smiles wryly and says: “Yes.”

Pressed further, he adds: “I don’t think it’s any secret how much it hurt everybody over the last two seasons and how much it means to us. So yes, it wasn’t easy.”

Despite the scars of the last two finals, it’s also important that the Leinster players are not spooked by them, and can truly enjoy this week, even relish it.

“Yeah, that’s probably a big thing. They’re unique, they don’t come around that often. I know this is our third final in a row but these weeks are few and far between, you don’t know how many you’re going to get in your career.

“So, it’s being able to enjoy it, particularly with the squad we have at the moment. It isn’t going to be the same next season and there’s coaches moving on as well, so it’s important that we do enjoy it and hopefully we can deliver a performance that we’re happy with on Saturday.”

Byrne is a calm, experienced outhalf now, who has a 24-2 win-loss record in his 26 Champions Cup starts and a 43-4 record overall. He underlined his big-game temperament with his performance in the quarter-final against La Rochelle, a repeat of which will go a long way toward guiding Leinster to that coveted fifth star. He closed out the 40-17 semi-final win over Toulouse two seasons ago and started all of Leinster’s games last season, including the 41-22 win over Toulouse at the same stage when landing seven from seven in a 16-point haul.

“The big thing is that we have to defend well against them [Toulouse]. Everyone knows how good they are when they get in their flow and if they get on top of you, they are very hard to stop, particularly with the individuals that they have. The last few years as well we have taken our chances against them and we have implemented our game on them, which is important.”

While Toulouse may have one or two surprises up their sleeves, Byrne adds: “They are playing very similarly but probably kicking the ball a little bit more.”

Byrne’s personal experience of finals with Leinster actually goes back further than Bilbao, for he was also among the crowd in Murrayfield and the Millennium Stadium when they beat Leicester and Northampton in 2009 and 2011 when aged 14 and 16, with his family, including younger brother Harry.

“They were incredible days. It’s pretty unique that we grew up going to those finals and now we get to play in them for the club you were supporting as a kid.”

They were a source of inspiration in his journey too.

“That’s the thing, you watch those games as a kid and that’s all you want to do, you want to play in those games. So yeah, it’s special.”

All the more so if this time Byrne and co can inspire another pitch invasion.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times