Gerry Thornley: Opportunity knocks for Ross Byrne
Leinster outhalf to vie with Carbery for role of understudy to Sexton on Australia tour
Ross Byrne: has made great strides during the past season with Leinster where he enjoyed ample game time at outhalf. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
This Irish tour of Australia being something of dry run for the 2019 World Cup in Japan, the selections of John Cooney and Ross Byrne among the six half-backs in the 32-man squad immediately stood out. This is particularly so as come the next World Cup, it’s conceivable that there may only be five half-backs, as was the case in 2015.
Viewed in that light, the naming of Cooney and Byrne strongly suggested that, for the time being at least, they have usurped the double-winning Luke McGrath as well as Ian Keatley in the pecking order at ‘9’ and ‘10’. To that can be added Tadhg Beirne ahead of Ultan Dillane and others, and in light of Rory Best’s withdrawal, Niall Scannell ahead of James Tracy also.
However the presence of the uncapped Byrne as one of three Leinster outhalves looked particularly significant. It follows a season in which he played 26 games at outhalf for Leinster, and of his 19 starts there, two were in the European Champions Cup pool wins at home and away to Montpellier, while he also had an extended stint in the home win over Exeter after Johnny Sexton’s early withdrawal.
Preferred as the starting ‘10’ to Joey Carbery for the Connacht and Munster games recently, all told Byrne had 1,560 minutes at outhalf compared to the former’s 250 this season.
In terms of Irish match-day squads, Carbery has the advantage of covering full-back as well, and so is clearly second in the pecking order, ala Ian Madigan at the last World Cup, but Byrne is now next in line, ala Paddy Jackson then, and his selection is perhaps also a nudge toward Carbery.
Without the same acceleration, footwork and general X-factor which Carbery possesses, Byrne has forced his way on the back of consistently displaying strong game management, a varied kicking game and sound temperament.
That said, when it was put to Joe Schmidt that Byrne was Leinster’s most improved player this season, the Irish coach maintained that there were quite a few in their rank vying for that title.
“Yeah, I’d be sure you’d get a decent battle for that ‘most improved player’ because there have been some young kids who have really been outstanding,” said Schmidt.
“But he’s done a really good job. You can’t dispute that he’s a great sort of back-up to Johnny, and even his game management, he’s been in here for one training, and he takes responsibility very quickly and takes it with a real maturity that gives confidence to the players around him, and that’s how you get your cohesion, that people know where they are meant to be, they know what they’re meant to do and he’s really taken that mantle on pretty quickly.”
“So from that perspective, I think he’s done a really good job,” added Schmidt. “He’s kicked out of hand pretty well, his goal-kicking has been pretty sound but I guess that’s one of the things about Joey, when you mention Ian Madigan, Ian Madigan left and went to Bordeaux to start at 10 because it wasn’t happening here.
“And part of that in my discussion with him was that he wanted to go away and make himself into the sort of 10 that would be a starting 10 at one of the provinces, should he get back in time for the World Cup when he was first going away.”
Also recalling JJ Hanrahan’s two-year sojourn to Northampton, Schmidt said: “We certainly want to keep the depth of talent that we can within the country so that’s the good thing with Ross. I had a very, very brief chat with Ross and said, ‘Look, have you got any interest in going to Ulster?’, and he said, ‘No, look, I’m happy with Leinster, I’ve had 16 starts’ or something at the time.”
“There was no hesitation in his mind that he was in a really good environment and he was making really good progress, and you can’t argue with that. I think they’re both incredibly valid.”
In all of this, Byrne has clearly made huge strides this past season whereas, as much through injury and circumstances, Carbery has been unable to.
One can never forecast for sure how things will pan out. But with Sexton likely to be even more carefully managed in the last full season before next year’s World Cup, Byrne looks set to have plenty more game time at ‘10’ for Leinster next season.
Carbery is still only 22, and Byrne 23, which makes them both younger than Sexton when he broke into the Leinster team in the latter of stages of their breakthrough Heineken Cup win of 2008-09, when he was 24.
Now, Carbery’s move to Munster opens up the possibility of both of the younger pretenders to Sexton’s crown significantly enhancing their exposure to high -profile games at outhalf, a position that probably requires more experience than any other.