McBryde backs Ross Byrne to be ‘all over things’ against La Rochelle

‘He’s probably got a little bit more tempo in his game than Johnny, to be fair’

Johnny Sexton's absence from Leinster's Heineken Cup semi-final away to La Rochelle on Sunday (kick-off 3pm Irish time) is an ill-timed blow, not least for the player himself in missing out on such a marquee game and also with next week's Lions squad announcement in mind.

But Leinster have probably been aware that he would be ruled out for a while and they can take encouragement from the manner Ross Byrne has slotted in for him over the last few years, especially in that quarter-final comeback win away to Exeter.

“It is what it is,” said assistant coach Robin McBryde on Tuesday. “You’ve got to deal with it. It’s part and parcel of the nature of rugby. It’s just one of those things.”

Sexton’s enforced absence may raise doubts over his durability for Warren Gatland and his assistant coaches, albeit McBryde, who is one of them, did stress that there is ample time between now and the scheduled Lions tour. Furthermore, Sexton has considerable credit in the bank from the previous treks to Australia and New Zealand, when he played seven games in five weeks both times and the tourists lost only one of the five Tests he started.

“It’s obviously not my area but I’m sure that the rest of the Lions coaches would be looking at it and just assessing the situation. They’ve worked with Johnny before on the other Lions trips. They know what he offers.

“There’s never an ideal time to get an injury really is there, especially in this year? But I think everybody knows what Johnny is all about, the fact he’s been there for so long, proven match winner in big matches. It’s not ideal but I think people know him well enough.”

Offsetting the loss of Sexton is that James Ryan, Garry Ringrose, Scott Penny, Tommy O'Brien and Ciarán Frawley are all expected to train fully this week, while Jamison Gibson-Park (hamstring), Caelan Doris (calf), Harry Byrne (hamstring) Jimmy O'Brien (hamstring) and the Munster bound Rowan Osborne (hand) are all doubtful.

After replacing Sexton in the 28th minute in Exeter, Byrne immediately brought composure and direction. Calling for the strike move off his own touchfinder with the pass in front of Hugo Keenan for Jordan Larmour's first try, he nailed his kicks, made his tackles and floated the skip pass with an advantage play for Larmour's second try.

It was probably his best performance yet for Leinster given the high stakes, even eclipsing the way he marshalled a comeback win over Exeter at the Aviva Stadium in December 2017 as a 12th-minute replacement for Sexton or when starting the titanic quarter-final against Ulster two seasons ago.

“With regards to Ross driving the team when he came on, I thought he was excellent against the Chiefs,” said McBryde. “He’s probably got a little bit more tempo in his game than Johnny, to be fair. I’ve been very impressed with the relationship between him and the lineout caller and the speed they’re able to work together.

“He’s all over things. When you see him in the walk through and the jog through everything comes as second nature. The lines of communication are just so quick. It happens really slickly, he steps in and he’s very comfortable obviously.

“Not that I’ve asked him, but you can guess that he’s probably frustrated with the lack of minutes he’s had with the national camp, but all he can do is keep on playing well and push himself forward. He did that against the Chiefs. Yeah, brilliant.”

This will be the 26-year-old’s 100th game for Leinster, and of his 23 in Europe, Byrne has only played in one defeat, as a replacement in the quarter-final loss against Saracens last September. Of his 11 starts, Leinster have won the lot.