“Yeah, I suppose it was sort of a surprise…”
For Leinster and Ireland international Ross Byrne, how he spent the last few weeks probably wouldn’t have been what he envisaged at the beginning of the year.
His omission from the Ireland Six Nations squad came as a surprise to many as head coach Joe Schmidt opted for the services of Johnny Sexton, Joey Carbery and Connacht’s Jack Carty as his three out-half incumbents for the championship.
Timing can be cruel.
The beginning of the Six Nations coincides with a break from PRO14 action. Meaning Byrne hasn’t had a Leinster game to focus on to help with getting over the disappointment.
A short break to Barcelona with his friends may have alleviated that somewhat but you can be sure that the 23-year-old would rather have been spending his time out in Co. Kildare where Ireland prepare for the Six Nations at their Carton House base rather than the joys which Catalonia’s capital has to offer.
“Yeah, I suppose it was sort of a surprise,” Byrne told Pundit Arena. “At the same time, I can understand Joe’s reasons. I probably didn’t play a whole lot before the squad was announced but I ended up getting to play the two European games, so, maybe just timing wasn’t great either.
“I mean you just have to move on, there’s no point dwelling on it. I’ve just had to reflect on what areas I need to work on and just try to push on with that. You’re not going to help yourself by dwelling on it.”
Byrne has shown admirable patience when it comes to representing Ireland.
He was selected in Schmidt’s 32-man squad for the summer tour of Australia and was expected to make his Ireland debut at some point throughout the three-Test tour against Michael Cheika’s Wallabies.
Unfortunately, how the series transpired, with Ireland going into the final Test with the series drawn at 1-1, meant that the St Michael’s College alumnus didn’t see any minutes on the pitch and that elusive first cap had to wait.
That cap came in November when Ireland defeated Italy at Soldier Field in Chicago and it was quickly followed by a second when he came off the bench for an injured Darren Sweetnam in the win over the USA.
From anyone’s perspective, it looked like Byrne had firmly edged his way into the Ireland reckoning for the foreseeable future.
But professional rugby can often be an unfair if not unpredictable game.
When Schmidt spoke at the Six Nations launch in London a few weeks ago, he mentioned Byrne not having the same “fluency” of starts this season than he did in the first half of the 2017/18 campaign.
“It’s been a weird enough season compared to last season,” Byrne admitted. “I went on the tour to Australia. I came back in and then I was kind of managed a little bit as well. Whereas I suppose the last few years I literally just played game, after game, after game. This year has been kind of play a game, on the bench for the week after, then not being involved the week after…or being on the bench a bit more.
“It’s probably been a little bit frustrating in terms of that, just to get a bit of momentum to play. Recently enough I’ve got the two starts in Europe and I was happy with how that went.”
What won’t come as a surprise is that Schmidt’s reasoning is, of course, backed up by numbers. This season, up until the point of the Six Nations squad announcement, Byrne played 567 minutes for Leinster compared to Sexton’s 552.
In the corresponding period last season, Byrne played 926 minutes to Sexton’s 440.
Not the same fluency, indeed.
With these kinds of decisions, it’s not solely based on minutes on the pitch but form most definitely comes into it too as Byrne reveals some of the areas of his game Schmidt wants him to work on.
“He just felt that the other lads that are in there are probably, in those areas, are doing a bit better than me at the moment.
“Just general enough areas – running game, kicking game, just stuff like that. Nothing too overly detailed but I suppose overall, just put myself in a position where I can’t be left out almost.”
Byrne stresses that he’s doing his best not to dwell on the disappointment or to feel too sorry for himself – he’s focusing on his next goal.
But that’s not the only setback that the out-half has had to deal with in the last 12 months as he currently draws on the experience of missing out on both the PRO14 and Champions Cup finals for Leinster last season to help him navigate this period.
“The backend of last season, being left out of the two finals, the two matchday squads.
“(The disappointment of missing out on the Six Nations) is probably right up there, to be honest. But I mean, no one benefits from you sulking and moping around the place or feeling sorry [for yourself] so you just have to get on with it, whatever the situation is.”
There are always going to be bumps in the road en route to reaching the highest level but, as any established professional athlete will tell you, it’s how you respond to setbacks which determine how successful you’re going to be.
Byrne has already achieved that in his career to date. A Leinster Schools Senior Cup final loss to Blackrock in 2013 he describes as the “worst thing on earth” at the time but he soon followed that up by blazing a trail through the Ireland U20 ranks, the AIL with his club UCD and through the Leinster Academy to make his senior debut for the eastern province in 2015.
When you love a sport that much, especially from a young age, there is little that is going to get in your way from succeeding.
Rugby has always been a focus in the Byrne household and in his extended family.
His brother, Harry, is another exciting prospect at out-half. The 19-year-old is currently with Noel McNamara’s U20 side for their Six Nations campaign and this season, he made the step up to the Leinster academy from the sub-academy. Then there’s Josh Murphy, a cousin of Byrne and the flanker began this season with a fresh senior contract under his belt.
“Myself and Harry were always massively into it. I wouldn’t say we were pushed out into the garden but my Dad probably edged us out there slowly!
“It didn’t matter what it was; football, rugby. We were always mad into sports the two of us. It’s something that I suppose we were always pretty good at and were generally handy enough at any sport. I played rugby from a pretty young age and obviously going to Michael’s as well and had pretty good success there.
“I wouldn’t say we knew from the beginning but I progressed throughout the levels and further up…the last few years in school when you’re making Leinster teams or Ireland teams, you kind of realise it’s (professionalism) more of realisation.”
From Minis with Old Belvedere to making your international Test debut in Soldier Field, it’s been quite a journey but there has been some passion for other sports along the way too, the small matter of playing Gaelic football for Kilmacud Crokes.
“Yeah, I played for Kilmacud Crokes. I kind of ended up playing by accident, to be honest! I was probably eight maybe, my Dad got a phone call off a guy in my class saying would Ross have any interest, I never even watched it, to be honest.
“I ended up playing a game and I didn’t know half of the rules! I enjoyed it and I wasn’t half bad. I played for the next few years and I played right up until first year (of school). I played on and off until about 15.
“Then the dream died, no Dublin call-ups!”
Perhaps Byrne’s excellent cross-field kicks which we have become so accustomed to in recent years were forged on the pitches in Stillorgan rather than those on Ailesbury Road.
Although Byrne didn’t receive a Dublin call-up during his underage years, a second cousin of his certainly did, four-time All Ireland winner, Ciarán Kilkenny.
That’s not the only link between the Dublin and Leinster setups across the two sports. Daniel Davey acts as a nutritionist to both teams and although Byrne is a great admirer of what Jim Gavin’s side have achieved in recent times, he doesn’t think he would have what it takes among those “freak athletes”.
“No, I don’t think I would have the legs for it to be honest! Watching how they play now, I think I’d be a 15, 20-minute impact sub, knock over a few points at best.
“They’re freak athletes to be fair, it’s pretty impressive what Dublin are doing at the moment.”
In spite of the fact that one sport is professional and the other is amateur, Byrne reveals that Leinster are taking a lot from what ‘The Dubs’ have achieved in recent times.
“The most impressive thing is their will to win year after year. The consistency that they show. Obviously winning four-in-a-row is remarkable. I don’t think there will be any let up this year and five-in-a-row.
“It’s something we’re looking to do is to not just sit on last season and admire that but push on again this year. Win the league and Europe once again.”
One thing that doesn’t come with GAA is intense transfer rumours and historically, it doesn’t happen much in Irish rugby either but last season saw Byrne and his former Leinster colleague Joey Carbery the subject of much media speculation surrounding their playing futures.
Both men were heavily linked with a move up to Ulster and as it transpired, Byrne remained with the eastern province and Carbery made his way down the M7 to become Munster’s new out-half.
In his own words, Byrne describes the whole situation as a “strange one” but in his mind, the whole thing played out with relative ease.
A brief conversation with the powers that be was had but he was adamant that he wanted to stay at Leinster. It was that simple.
“Me and Joey hardly spoke about it. It would have been an awkward conversation! I had a pretty brief conversation and I was just happy with where I was in Leinster, it’s where I want to be. I couldn’t really see myself playing for another province, to be honest.”
Much of what gets lost in circumstances such as this is the human element – perhaps a player who grew up in a certain area, is surrounded by friends and family in that area and supported that area’s rugby team growing up would prefer not to leave – it’s not unreasonable.
It couldn’t have been an easy situation to be the subject of mass media coverage surrounding your playing future and Byrne describes it as the media sometimes treating players as “robots”.
“I think people just forget about all that as if we’re just robots. There is obviously the rugby factor but I think you’re going to play your best rugby as well if you’re happy. For me, I found it kind of funny because everyone was saying ‘oh, Ross is going to Ulster’ and my decision had been made already.
“It doesn’t really happen in rugby, those sort of transfer…it’s probably been the closest thing there’s been to [football transfer rumours]. It was a strange one. I just kind of put it to bed and moved on. Let the media keep spinning what they want!”
With all of that distraction now firmly in the past, Byrne is focussing on what he can control and that’s putting in performances for Leinster.
The break may have come at a less than ideal time with no rugby to be played but for the Dublin native, he knows that he just has to accept the situation and move on.
“It would probably make it easier if there was just a game for Leinster the week after because then you can go out and play. There’s nothing you can do about it. You can say it makes it harder, you’re thinking about it more.
“The truth is, you just have to accept that it is what it is. We’ve got a game next week so just have a good week of training this week and prepare for that game. Try and put in a good team performance and then put in a good personal performance, another notch on the belt and put my name in the hat.”
Byrne has bounced back from disappointments before and you can be sure he will do it again.