Ross Byrne much more than a safe pair of hands
Dependable outhalf has become a key figure in Leinster set-up over last three seasons
Ross Byrne in action against Toulouse. “I’m not Johnny [Sexton] so I’m not going to try to be Johnny. I just have to try and stamp my own authority on the team when I do play.” Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
It’s a measure of Ross Byrne’s dependability that in 17 Heineken Champions Cup games for Leinster over the last three seasons, six of them starting, he’s never been on the losing side.
Unaware of this, he smiles and says “there’s a good stat. Hopefully I’ll get to play in the final then! I’ll have to tell the coaches that one”.
Over the course of a lengthy interview on Wednesday afternoon in a quiet corner of Mulligans in Sandymount, while clearly very driven and fiercely competitive, Byrne is also easygoing and doesn’t take himself too seriously.
He’s always had a calm temperament, and doesn’t overthink things, but he hates losing.
“There’s nothing worse than losing.”
That goes for everything he’s ever played, for as long as he can recall.
“Yes, I’ve always been incredibly competitive.”
Byrne has become quite a key man for Leinster these past three seasons. This season, he started the last two pool wins over Toulouse and Wasps, and also the quarter-final at home to Ulster, whom Leinster are reacquainted with today.
His last act was to nail the match-winning penalty before hobbling off.
“It might have looked a bit dramatic,” he concedes with a sheepish chuckle, after a first game in four weeks caught up with him.
“I’d missed the two kicks in the first half as well, so I think it was a case of ‘you better get this or you might not be looked at again for selection’.”
That last meeting with Ulster was also “one of the toughest games, if not the toughest, I’ve ever played. It was incredibly physical, and the atmosphere was so intense. The ball was in play for a lot more than most of the games we’ve played this season and Ulster threw absolutely everything at us”.
That quarter-final also demonstrated how much more he is carrying into contact, when he backed his strength and reach to finish Leinster’s first try.
The influence of Felipe Contepomi, a Leinster legend who had no peers as an outhalf with a sniff of the try-line, is clear.
There’s no secret to what they [Saracens] do,
“He’s been brilliant for me. The way he reads the game is incredible and he simplifies everything. He’s always on top of me. I wouldn’t say he’s giving out, but even the way he says something makes me think ‘Oh my God, why am I not doing that?’
“Obviously I’m not the quickest, but he’s saying you don’t have to be the quickest as long as you run good lines, and take the ball to the line, gaps will open for you, and then take the right options.”
Byrne also saw out the last 14 minutes of last week’s semi-final against Toulouse, which he describes as one of Leinster’s best performances of the season. But there’s room for improvement, they’ll need to find it in the final.
“Toulouse are an exceptionally good team, and Saracens are as well, but I think it will be a different type of game. There’s no secret to what they [Saracens] do, whereas Toulouse are a lot more unpredictable. I don’t even know if Toulouse know what they’re doing at times. With Saracens everyone knows what they’re going to try to do, but it’s still a case of try and stop it.”
Byrne’s father, Pat, is CEO of City Jet, and Byrne readily accepts the jibe that hence they could afford the fees at St Michael’s for himself and his brothers, Michael and Harry. And just as well too, he says.
“I wouldn’t be here without them [St Michael’s].”
He also has two sisters, Sarah and Ellie.
His dad played in the back row for Pres Bray.
“They lost the [Leinster] Schools Cup final to Ollie Campbell’s Belvedere, to his despair. He then played in a few successful Wanderers teams with a number of Irish internationals. He always claimed he didn’t have the height to play international rugby.”
Byrne’s height (1.91m/6ft 3in) comes from his mum, Jane, and her side of the family. He grew up in Goatstown, and reckoned he started playing rugby “as soon as I could walk. I didn’t have a choice”.
His dad wanted him to join Wanderers, but Byrne opted for Old Belvedere with his mates from St Michael’s, as well as Gaelic football from about aged nine to 15 in Kilmacud Crokes, where he played in midfield.
“I probably wouldn’t have the engine for it now. I enjoyed it. We won a few under-age leagues. I found it was good for rugby as well, especially kicking off both feet.”
He’s always been an outhalf.
“I played one or two games at 12 or 15, and I just hated it. You just don’t get enough of the ball or have as much control. My skill set was best suited to ‘10’, and I probably didn’t have enough pace to play anywhere else,” he admits, laughing.
He played in four successive schools finals, losing two Junior deciders to Terenure, and winning the first of two Senior finals against Clongowes before losing the second to Blackrock.
Dan Leavy was captain for the sole win, when team-mates included Ross Molony, Josh Murphy, Rory O’Loughlin, Cian Kelleher and Adam Leavy, while Nick McCarthy and Denis Coulson, who’s now at Stade Francais, were on the bench, while James Ryan and Max Deegan were team-mates in his last year, when losing to a Blackrock side featuring Garry Ringrose, Nick Timoney and Jeremy Loughman.
“Absolutely robbed,” he says, and is unwilling to go any further. “That’s cup rugby for you. But the Rock team was very good too. There were probably about 15 future professionals on the pitch that day.”
He attributes the school’s success to “doing everything to a professional standard” under Andy Skehan, Emmet McMahon and Brian O’Meara and, with their reputation as a rugby academy, this is “not stopping any time soon”. Witness this year’s Senior/Junior Cup double.
He also admits the pressure of the Leinster Schools Cup is “crazy”, yet Byrne remains a firm advocate.
“I think it’s one of the best competitions in the world. It’s straight knock-out, which is pressure, but that’s also the beauty of it. I know people say they should make it more of a league, but I don’t think they should ever change it. I just think it’s spectacular, and the atmosphere at games is phenomenal.”
Byrne played for the Leinster and Irish Schools, and in 14 caps for the Under-20s, he scored an Irish record of 129 points. However Harry, with 122 points from 13 caps, is set to take that record from his older brother.
“If he goes to the [Under-20] World Cup, he will, yeah,” says Byrne, adding with more than a hint of sibling rivalry. “Ah, it is what it is. It’ll kill me, but we’ll let him have his time in the sun.”
Despite a continuing back issue and then ankle surgery, he also reached an All-Ireland League semi-final with UCD, while his Leinster debut was off the bench against Edinburgh in Meggetland in a 16-9 loss.
He smiles ruefully. “I’ve played Edinburgh away twice and never in Murrayfield.” The other visit was to Myreside.
“It wasn’t my ideal debut but sure look, you can’t always pick and choose. Hopefully I’ll have the fairytale ending as opposed to the start.”
Halfway through 2016-17, his breakthrough year, he was promoted to a full contract. He began the campaign as fourth choice outhalf, behind Sexton, Joey Carbery and Cathal Marsh, but their injuries contributed to Byrne playing 20 times for Leinster, including a European debut off the bench away to Northampton and a first start a week later in the 60-13 win.
He then started away to Munster and had a particularly good game in the home win over Ulster, after which his confidence grew. He set up O’Loughlin’s second try that night with a dinked kick and there have been many more try assists off that precision crosskick.
“I’ve always had a pretty attack-minded mindset when it comes to kicking. I don’t know if I’ve always done it as much as I have done recently. The way defences are nowadays that’s one of the few areas where there might be a bit of a weakness in some systems.”
Last season he played 28 games, including the Pro14 semi-final win over Munster, and was an ever-present in the European pool stages, starting both wins over Montpellier, which made missing out on the match-day 23 in all three Euro knock-out games, and the Pro14 final, all the harder to take.
Not that he was ever inclined to leave at the height of the speculation surrounding himself and Joey Carbery.
“There was no decision to make. Even from a playing perspective I think I ended up playing more minutes [1,560] than anyone at Leinster last season, and I played at ‘10’ more than any other ‘10’ at the club, and I couldn’t see myself playing for any other province. I think it’s pretty rare in professional sport that you get to play for the team you’ve grown up supporting as well.”
And also with mates from school and underage teams.
“That’s the thing. It’s incredible. For most of us, our family homes are probably within five miles of UCD.”
Included in the Irish squad for the tour to Australia, Byrne was on the bench for the third Test. As Sexton cramped he was warming up and had his tracksuit off, but his Test debut finally came over four months later in the win over Italy in Chicago.
He’ll cherish that number 22 jersey forever.
It was incredible to win the double, but having experienced it, you want that every year
“It’s a dream come true, without sounding too clichéd. I probably had that dream as soon as I started playing and watching rugby.”
His family were there in force too. His parents have been to virtually every game he and Harry have played, as they were for his home debut against the USA, when he came on after 26 minutes.
All of which made missing out on the Six Nations more disappointing. Yet he maintains he’s not thinking about making that World Cup squad.
“It’s not far away in terms of life, but in terms of rugby it’s so far away. There’s plenty to focus on with Leinster at the moment.”
Byrne watches Sexton every day, and has the height of admiration for what he has achieved.
“I think he showed his true class last Sunday. I thought he was exceptional. He made everything look so easy. I think that’s when he’s at his best, when he takes the ball to the line so well and generally makes the right decision and makes the team tick. Luke [McGrath] helps set that tempo too, and it gives Johnny that platform to put the team in the right areas and get everyone moving.”
He’s not shy of being the boss at outhalf himself.
“I’m not Johnny, so I’m not going to try to be Johnny. I just have to try and stamp my own authority on the team when I do play.”
Although he doesn’t say it, you sense he’s impatient. He’s 24 now, and he’s part of a greedy machine.
“It was incredible to win the double, but having experienced it, you want that every year to be honest. I mean, if I was to stop playing now, would I be satisfied? Nowhere near. You look at Johnny, Cian Healy, Rob Kearney, Dev [Toner], and what they have achieved, going for five European Cups. That’s exactly what you want to do, if not more.”
“There’s nothing worse than losing a semi-final or final, and nothing better than winning one. That’s what everybody wants in Leinster, and that’s what’s expected of us now, nothing but winning.”