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Leinster wing Adam Byrne on new journey after trilogy of injury woe

The 27-year-old winger is back after a painstaking 21-months out through injuries

Adam Byrne is back in the saddle for Leinster after 21 months out. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho

The kiss. It was in nobody’s plans. But it struck a chord after Adam Byrne’s first match back with Leinster following a 21-month medical exploration of his hamstring, Achilles and quad.

A trilogy of woe behind, as he walks off the pitch in the RDS with two tries against Zebre his mother Gillian is in the stand. When he makes it to the railing, she plants her hands on his face. The big raw-boned winger, with the physique of an Olympic sprinter leans towards her and someone takes a photograph. They kiss.

It was the picture of the end of a journey, of relief and understanding and celebration, the final step in a crossing. There is pride and triumph. There is empathy and intimacy, his mother reaching out over the blue seats, his head bowed forward, a thousand frustrations dissipating. This is how things can look after emerging from almost two years down the track.



Adam Byrne strides through the door in shorts. Jeeze, what happened to your knee? “Yeah, trousers were sticking to it”, he says. Half the knee cap on one side is a soft scab. The Astro turf, that means leggings from now on.

“I would say a bit of Vaseline on my knees the next match. But my money would be on Dave Kearney to have the leggings,” he says mischievously. “He loves his fashion. He’ll bring them into Ireland.

“I like the 4G even though my knee’s cut up. It’s faster and when the weather gets bad you are still able to play a good brand of rugby, I guess rugby Leinster would want to play.”

Until April Byrne shared a house with Rhys Ruddock and Kearney. They played golf during Covid, when they were allowed, with Rob Kearney also jumping in when he could before and after his season in Australia.

“I lived with Dave and Rhys, who are both in Blackrock and then Rob, when he came back from Australia and just before he went, called over quite a bit. We all love golf.

“Druids Glen is great. Rob and Dave are members. I’m a member in Palmerstown House and the lads are also members in Luttrellstown, so between those…”

Byrne is an international rugby player but he is also an amalgam of sports. Long summer holidays were spent in Castlewarden Golf Club with his brother Sam. His friend Shane, who he knew from GAA, lived on the course. Byrne also played with Kill GAA club and Patrician Secondary School. Gillian would drop them there in the morning and pick them up when they were ready.

“Me and Sam were juniors,” he says. “Mum would leave us there and we’d spend all day at the club. Probably lucky getting swing lessons when you are young, so my swing isn’t too bad.

“We used to play 36 holes. You know, play a round, get our chicken nuggets and chips in the clubhouse and then go back out.

Soccer was another passion. But Sam, who is a year younger, was better. Adam’s skills belonged more in Gaelic football. His childhood dreams were of Sundays in September and Croke Park. They were lilywhite coloured like Kill, the Kildare town where he grew up. He didn’t play rugby. Then there were no thoughts of Leinster’s provincial blue.

Adam Byrne celebrates after scoring a try for Leinster against Zebre. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Carefree days, he says he was the only mixed race kid in the town and it was never an issue. Sam and Adam have the same mother and different fathers. Adam’s biological father is not part of his life.

“He wasn’t in the picture,” he says. “Mum then got married and my adoptive dad is who I call dad. I obviously look different to the rest of my family. But I’ve had a great upbringing. When I look back I could not have had a more loving, supportive family.”

A few years ago, he was the face of a Black Lives Matter campaign alongside Irish rugby player Linda Djougang, who came from Cameroon as a nine-year-old. He knows others have faced racism but his own exposure to it has been limited.

“My experience was hugely positive. People would ask where are you from and I’d say Kill and they’d say but where are you really from. I didn’t get annoyed. Just . . . frustrated.

“I was probably the only coloured person in the village. It has changed now. But at the time that was how it was. I’m thinking now my kids can grow up and it’s normal to see people of any background.”

As a 15-year-old he arrived late to rugby at Naas RFC. But when he did he blew through the door, his powerful brand of athleticism taking him into Joe Schmidt’s Leinster side to debut as the youngest Leinster player ever, at 18-years-old.

It was a Christmas match in the RDS and seven minutes pitch time against Connacht. But still, he had the taste. By then the two brothers were chasing different shaped balls. Sam was following a career as a footballer in Manchester. Plucked from school as a teenager, his direction was in the theatre of dreams at Old Trafford.

“He went to Man United at 15 and then went to Everton from there,” says Byrne. “Things were going well. Then he a bad double leg break. Whatever way the operation went it didn’t heal right. He’d a rod through the tibia. It didn’t heal right and he got it removed. Basically, he had to retire from professional football.

“For Sam it was a difficult journey. He left school after the junior cert. In football you are in this bubble in a sport with a lot more money. In Leinster, I was able to study, do a masters degree (biomedical engineering).

“With Sam he was with just footballers and you probably have a false sense of real life. He came back for a spell but his fiancée lived in Liverpool. He now works in the police force there.”

A few weeks after his Leinster debut and Byrne would break his ankle in a club game with UCD and then play with the national sevens team, which fell just short of qualifcation for Rio 2016. Games with the Leinster academy, a couple more injuries and following the 2012 debut, 2016 was the year he again played with Leinster. Almost two years on ice, he’s back once more.


“The long period of injury and Covid gave me time for introspection, to sit down with myself and figure out my own values,” he says. “You are always aware of them. But my life has always been so busy and they are in the back of your head.

“I hadn’t given myself the chance to sit down and think properly. You know, take a step out of yourself and look at yourself and hone in on what things mean to you and what you value most.

“So even when I was injured and those times I was running on my own in the wind and rain, I’d come in and think this is my job and this is as bad as it gets. I don’t mind this. Then you get back on the field. Those moments they’re massive. I also understood how much it means to my family and to give them the moments.”

The initial injury was run of the mill. Four to six weeks out. But each move forward resulted in another step back to the doctors. Eventually surgery fixed a split hamstring until his Achilles flared up, and when his Achilles had settled he tore a muscle off the bone in his quadriceps. He was rarely out of the body shop.

“I was like whatever I was told, I was shaving two weeks off,” he says. “Whatever, I’d shave off two weeks. I never thought it was career ending. The most difficult aspect was that I thought the hamstring was four weeks and it ended up being 21 months. It didn’t seem that bad. It was separated and kept re-tearing.

“It wasn’t one big injury that was potentially career ending. It was a series of unfortunate events. I won’t blank out that period. I learned a lot about myself and others that is invaluable.”

A devoted optimist, he sees the glass half full. His family are aware of his forward looking, buoyant gaze, so they never engaged in any of the worst case scenario discussions.

Adam Byrne made his Ireland debut against Argentina in 2017. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

He has also let go of the worry of playing, the anxiety of understanding what is at stake if the team loses. Instead he has embraced the enjoyment aspects of competing in a sport. He has worked at Leinster with Felipe Contepomi and Stuart Lancaster on how to be more involved, get his hands on the ball, be aware, better positioned. He has improved his understanding of the game and, almost academically, watched training sessions, taking books full of notes.

He has also grown closer to Irish flanker Dan Leavy, who has also had a long and winding path back from a serious injury to his knee. Brothers in recovery, they’d compete in the gym. They are the same age and although the early years were different with Leavy coming through the St Michael’s school system, they played on the same underage teams.

“We were in the gym rehabbing together. He was great to have,” says Byrne. “The way he plays on the field. Tough guy. We’d bounce off each other in the gym, compete for gym scores.

“There was no doubt in his mind he was getting back. It was great to have him there with me. The day before the Zebre game he sent me a text - ‘can’t wait to be back out there with you buddy. Let’s do this.’ It was a great text to get.”

At 27-years-old there is a future. He believes that. The way he thinks, there couldn’t not be a future. He knows he’s living in a lane where everyone is travelling at speed, where good health only puts you in the starting blocks.

But the pictures in his head are hopeful. It was Schmidt, who also gave him his first senior Irish cap in 2017 against Argentina that came off a season with Leinster, where he scored 10 tries in 19 outings.

“I’d be lying if I said. . . I’d love to sing the anthem again and play for Ireland again,” he says. “But what works for me is what next, the moment you are in and the next moment. You can get overwhelmed if you start thinking about what can happen in the future.”

Maybe his mother’s hands on his face in the RDS was not the end of a journey. Perhaps it was the beginning of a new one.