Leinster 43 Zebre 7
Some comeback. As feelgood stories go, this one is right up there. Adam Byrne was Leinster's youngest debutant ever almost nine years ago at the age of 18. In the interim he had played 58 times for his province, but Byrne admitted that last Saturday against Zebre a the RDS felt like his first start all over again.
No wonder. The torn hamstring which had sidelined him since his last outing in December 2019 was compounded by a quad injury in February which also required surgery.
The setback might have broken lesser men, not least in pandemic times, but not only did Byrne return on Saturday, he looked as strong and fit as ever, and nothing made himself, his team-mates or the 10,000 crowd happier than his two tries.
After the game, Byrne went to a section of the crowd behind the posts.
“They were a few of my childhood friends from Kill. I saw in the WhatsApp group on Friday that they had bought a bunch of tickets to come to the game, so that was great.
“I found my family then on the far side as well. I guess that moment was for them and I think they enjoyed it as much as I did, probably more. So that meant a lot to me.”
They were there for him through what he describes as tough and challenging times.
“You definitely realise how important friends and family are. I think at Leinster over the last few years it’s been a really tight bunch, and I can’t speak highly enough of all the lads in the building.
"I think I got a text or had a verbal message before today from everyone in the whole building, not just the team, which meant a lot to me. And I definitely took each of those messages in. I lived with Dave Kearney and Rhys Ruddock over Covid and I can't speak highly enough of them.
“I felt I made the most of [life] outside of rugby, and when I was in the building then trying to get myself better with rehab and I gave that my all, then tried to switch mindset to my friends and family outside of that, which definitely helped.
“It’s only when I reflect on it now that I take a lot of things from it, my family and my close friends, how much they mean to me.
Byrne looks like he might even have bulked up a little although he admits: “There was a couple of days when I was living with Rhys and Dave that I probably ordered a few too many pizzas.
“But the strength and conditioning staff and the medical staff, they just get you back in such shape. To be honest, that wasn’t too bad for me. I was just doing a bit of gym while I was injured and then a lot of running once I got back.”
Like any player coming back after serious injuries, the earlier his involvement last Saturday the better. To that end, he had asked Harry Byrne to give him an early contestable kick, but his chase was blocked, albeit the resulting penalty led to Leinster's first try.
His first touch was when he worked off his wing to provide a quick link, but his next was even better. Again he worked across, this time in defence, to gather a grubber kick by Jacopo Trulla before stepping left and right to beat two tackles, then take a third and offload to Dan Leavy, himself only starting his fifth game in two and a half years after his own injury hell.
“That felt good, it felt like instinct and reacting to what’s in front of you,” Byrne admitted. “To be honest, to be back out there with Dan was great as well. He went through a tough time, similar to me, over the last couple of years.
“He sent me a message the day before the game to say ‘let’s go do this, buddy’. It was great to have him there, he was on my side for the kick-offs. He doesn’t look like he has lost any of his edge either.”
Not a bit of it. No less than Byrne, Leavy looked as strong and athletic as ever.
Byrne's two tries in the 40th and 49th minutes were almost bonuses, the first courtesy of Johnny Sexton's skip pass after good carries by Jamie Osborne and Leavy, the second served on a silver salver from Sexton's pinpoint crosskick. As Geoffrey Boycott was wont to say, as easy as catching it in mother's apron.
“I definitely owe him a couple of pints,” Byrne admitted of Sexton.
“The first one kind of happened quick, you’re in the moment, but the second one, the kick, I was twitching, it felt like it was in the air for ages and then I was like, ‘I’ll try and get it closer for him, for the conversion’ but I was just happy to dot it down.
“But just to put on the boots and get out there for the warm-up when we were running out and seeing the Leinster supporters cheering your name, cheering you on, I couldn’t even feel my legs there was that much adrenaline going through me.”
Hopefully Byrne stays fit and healthy now for, at 27, his speed, strength, footwork and aerial work could again add real X-factor for his province and perhaps even his country.
SCORING SEQUENCE – 2 mins: Penny try 5-0; 13: Larmour try, H Byrne con 10-0; 39: A Byrne try 15-0; 43: E Byrne try, Sexton con 22-0; 46: Cronin try, Sexton con 29-0; 49: A Byrne try, Sexton con 36-0; 64: Kelleher try, Sexton con 43-0; 67: Bruno try, Pescetto con 43-7.
LEINSTER: Jimmy O'Brien; Adam Byrne, Jamie Osborne, Ciarán Frawley, Jordan Larmour; Harry Byrne, Luke McGrath (capt); Ed Byrne, Seán Cronin, Michael Ala'alatoa; Ryan Baird, Devin Toner; Dan Leavy, Scott Penny, Rhys Ruddock.
Replacements: Johnny Sexton for H Byrne (23 mins), Rónan Kelleher for Cronin, Peter Dooley for E Byrne, Cian Healy for Ala'alatoa, Max Deegan for Leavy, Rob Russell for Frawley (all 51), Nick McCarthy for McGrath (56), Ross Molony for Penny (71).
ZEBRE PARMA: Jacopo Trulla; Pierre Bruno, Erich Cronje, Enrico Lucchin, Mattia Bellin; Antonio Rizzi, Nicolo Casilio; Andrea Lovotti, Oliviero Fabiani (capt), Ion Neculai; Cristian Stoian, Andrea Zambonin; Iacopo Bianchi, Luca Andreani, Renato Giammarioli. Not used: Guglielmo Palazzani,
Replacements: Paolo Pescetto for Bianhi (53 mins), Massimo Ceciliani for Fabiani, Danilo Fischetti for Lovotti, Matteo Nocera for Neculai (all 56), Giovanni Licata for Rizzi (58), David Sisi for Stoian (62), Tommaso Boni for Andreani (73).
Sinbinned: Antonio Rizzi (48-58 mins).
Referee: Sam Grove-White (SRU).