Unflappable Byrne not thrown off course by ‘surprise’ Ireland omission

CONFIDENCE AND CALMNESS personified, one thing that stands out about Ross Byrne is his unflustered nature, even in the most pressurised situations as he goes about his business on the pitch with a swagger and utter conviction. 

The 24-year-old has had to be patient for opportunities at Leinster in the role of understudy to Johnny Sexton, but after Joey Carbery’s departure for Munster last summer, Byrne has truly seized his chance this season. 

Byrne has been in excellent form for Leinster this season. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Byrne has justified Leinster’s faith in him when the IRFU came knocking on the door this time last year, and in making 19 appearances this term, has showed his growing capacity to deputise for Sexton in the 10 jersey.

His match-winning penalty from the touchline to get Leinster across the line in their epic Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final win over Ulster while cramping up was a real coming of age moment for Byrne, who contributed 16 points that day in his most controlled and assured display in blue.

The fact Byrne had the required self-possession in that high-octane, high-stakes situation speaks volumes of his unflappable temperament and confidence in his own skillset, as he has thrived with greater responsibility in Leo Cullen’s side this season.

Not only did Byrne pull the strings and steer Leinster home in that quarter-final tie — his first start in a European knockout game — but he was also handed the reins in the final pool outings against Toulouse and Wasps.

“He has always been there for us when we needed him,” Leinster scrum coach John Fogarty says. “You have to admire his mindset. He knows Johnny’s there. He runs the teams like Johnny when Johnny is not there. If Johnny is here, Ross is adding to the conversations as well. He has really stood up this season for us.”

While Leinster have absolutely no hesitation in pitching Byrne in, Fogarty explained there is now far less over-reliance on Sexton in the pivot position.

“In the past if Johnny wasn’t there? I remember when we played against Toulouse in a semi-final and Johnny didn’t start and it was like, ‘Jesus Christ.’

“There was an effect on the entire playing group. Now, though, if Johnny is not there, Ross is there. He gives confidence to everyone, we know what game he will play. The forwards like playing with him.

“He manages the group really well during the week. He’s a very confident fella but such a solid person for us in our group.

“Getting to semi-finals, finals, winning competitions you have to have a squad and it is going to be massively tested. We are very lucky to have Ross in this squad. Like I said, when Johnny is not there, there is not this anxiety in the coaching or playing group. That’s what Ross brings mentally and in the way he plays the game. He is very, very capable.”

While his kicking, passing and playmaking ability is an obvious strength, Byrne’s rugby intelligence has shone through in his capacity to stay cool under pressure, but also emerge as a beacon of decision-making calm in the Leinster backline.

The former St Michael’s man’s leadership ability is developing all the time and he certainly doesn’t appear to be fazed by the sizeable task of filling Sexton’s boots, as he brings his own skillsets to the jersey when selected. He’ll look to drive and manage the team on regardless of whether his captain is around or not.

Leinster’s Ross Byrne at UCD. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“It is probably just another year of being in the senior team, another year of experience, to be honest,” he says. “Besides that, I feel more comfortable, more settled. It is my third full season in the senior team, so it’s probably experience more than anything else.

“I’ve played in some big games as well and I’ve gone reasonably okay. It’s just a case of big-game experience. The more you play in those games, the more comfortable you feel.”

Having been left out of Ireland’s Six Nations squad, Byrne has bounced back and responded with a series of big displays in blue, with Cullen previously praising his influence on the squad during the championship period when many of Leinster’s internationals were away.

After going on tour to Australia last summer and making his Ireland debut against Italy last November, Byrne’s omission from Joe Schmidt’s squad came as a surprise to many, with his place going to Connacht’s in-form Jack Carty instead.

Byrne, a man of few words in front of the cameras, used the disappointment to fuel his performances for Leinster during that period.

“For me, it’s just a case of trying to improve my game,” the out-half continues. “Any chance I can get here in Leinster I need to be to be the best I can be and push Leinster into the places we want to go.

“There’s no point dwelling on it. Once it’s happened, you just have to move on and try and improve.”

His Pro14 form earned him a call-up to Schmidt’s extended panel midway through the Six Nations.

“Yeah, Joe spoke to me about how he felt the other lads were a little bit ahead of me in different areas so it’s just up to me to try and improve my game and put myself back in the hat.

“To be honest, I’m just looking forward to the end of the season with Leinster. Obviously, we’ve got two trophies we want to win and if we can win them and I can play my part that will obviously help my case a bit and then after that we’ll worry about the pre-season and if I’m in the summer squad or not.” 

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