Search icon

Rugby

16th Jul 2023

Ross Byrne knows what’s coming as Johnny Sexton hearing hangs over squad

Patrick McCarry

Ross Byrne

Of all the questions that he would get thrown his way, Byrne knew this was coming.

If it only feels like the 2022/23 finished a few short weeks ago it’s because it did. I meet up with Barry, our cameraman, and wave at the print and radio journalists as we make our way into the IRFU’s High Performance Centre to chat with Ross Byrne and Iain Henderson.

It is two days before Ireland officially launch their Canterbury gear for the World Cup and, by serendipitous timing, two days before Johnny Sexton’s EPCR misconduct hearing. Byrne, Henderson and Peter O’Mahony, who could end up with the Ireland captaincy for a while, are all up for interviews and all know full well there will be Sexton questions.

O’Mahony insists the squad are fully focused on World Cup preparations but Henderson admits to us that, “It’s probably been a huge stress for Johnny.”

Byrne joins us in the players’ lounge, where the women’s and sevens players usually hang out when at the HPC [there is a similar room for the senior men’s squad over the other side of the building] and is wearing the new Ireland home jersey. He has a really strong chance of making that final squad but, for a player out of the Ireland set-up as recently as November 2022, one wonders how comfortable he is tempting fate like this.

We were fortunate enough to be granted 15 minutes with Byrne and the idea was to chat about everything and anything but rugby. The players get enough rugby questions thrown at them so the idea was to talk family, friends, holidays, TV, movies, books, music and wherever else the road took us. I would then drop in the final two questions about rugby and leave him back to his day [or next interview].

For Byrne, though, rugby is not only at the core of everything, it is his comfort blanket.

Ross ByrneRoss Byrne playing for St. Michael’s College in the 2012 Leinster Schools Senior Cup Final. (Credit: Brian Lawless/SPORTSFILE)

‘I was obsessed with rugby’

Ross Byrne is not big into reading books, can’t tell you if any recent albums, songs or movies stand out in his mind, or mean anything to him.

As for holidays, they were mainly spent with the Leinster lads and summer weddings for Jack Conan, Garry Ringrose, Andrew Porter and Ed Byrne. “The weddings were the holidays! You were seeing the lads the whole time, which was enjoyable

Asked what three items he would pack first if heading away from home for a stretch, or going into training camp, he says, “Gum-shield, boots and gear.”

Put to him that it would be understandable if all anyone ever stopped him in the street to talk about was rugby, he replies, “You kind of have to accept that this is our job. Wen you are in the Leinster and Ireland squads, people want to talk about that a lot. You just have to accept that. It’s what comes when you play for these teams… with Harry and myself both playing, rugby is a hot topic at home, as well, but the family has lots of other stuff to talk about and there’s plenty of nieces and nephews to distract you.”

Around six or seven minutes into the chat, it is clear that Byrne is much more comfortable when the topic is rugby. It is the safe space; what makes him tick.

“When I was a kid,” he says, “I was obsessed with rugby. I was lucky enough that my dad was able to bring me to a big number of European games, or internationals. I’d be watching rugby non-stop… my dad, Pat, played for Pres Bray and Wanderers, which he would let everyone know about!”

“I used to love going to the warm-ups of games,” he adds. “I used to love going early, and getting as close to the pitch as I could, to watch the kickers warming up. The stadium would almost be empty and I loved being there for it.”

Ross has four years on his younger brother, Harry, but fondly recalls the pair of them out playing in their housing estate, growing up, whether it was rugby, GAA or a bit of football. There was a spot of golf, too, and he brightens up when he recalls heading to Dooks golf course, in Kerry, with friends when he was a teenager.

That brings us to his time in St Michael’s where rugby was central to so much of his time there. He played Junior and Senior Cup for Michael’s and was in the same team as Ross Molony, Nick McCarthy, Josh Murphy and Cian Kelleher, with Dan Leavy and Rory O’Loughlin in the year ahead. All would go on to play for Leinster, with three progressing to the Ireland team.

Harry Byrne, Ross Byrne and Jimmy O’Brien pictured after a Leinster win over Munster. (Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile)

‘This is exactly where I want to be’ – Ross Byrne

10 minutes into our chat, shelving the ‘hardly any rugby Qs’ plan, I ask Ross Byrne how it feels to be sitting here, a month before Ireland’s World Cup squad is announced, in the new home jersey and looking in good shape to play some part.

In November 2022, it had been 20 months since Byrne’s last appearance for Ireland [three minutes off the bench in a Six Nations win over England]. He had 14 Test appearances [two starts] and Andy Farrell looked to have moved on from the idea of Byrne as a Test-level deputy, and eventual replacement, for Johnny Sexton. Harry Byrne was getting call-ups while his older brother was left out.

Byrne did not feature for Ireland in 2021/22 but got his chance when both Joey Carbery and Harry Byrne were injured and Johnny Sexton pulled up before a home game against Australia. Jack Crowley was drafted in to start – wearing Sexton’s No.10 jersey – and Byrne was bench in an Irish match-day squad. As the game played out, Byrne came off the bench for the final quarter and kicked the clinching penalty in a 13-10 win. Farrell declared, “It’s awesome for Ross Byrne… He’s waited for that chance and he delivered it and got us over the line.”

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” says Byrne. “This is exactly where I want to be, putting my hand up for selection.

“I’d obviously be very frustrating if I wasn’t here, but I’m just looking forward and trying to improve each day. Hopefully I can do enough to put myself forward and get picked.”

Ross Byrne

Ross Byrne on what Johnny Sexton means as a leader

As it would turn out, Johnny Sexton did attend the misconduct hearing on Thursday but deliberations rolled into Friday and a decision on whether he will face any sanctions, or bans, will not become clearer until Monday or Tuesday.

Were Sexton to receive a playing ban, Andy Farrell would then be forced to plan for his World Cup warm-ups, and possibly the tournament itself, with only Ross Byrne and Jack Crowley in his squad, with Ciarán Frawley there as a goal-kicking fall-back. Next up, one would imagine, would be Joey Carbery and then Harry Byrne.

As well as his clear talents and a playmaker and on-field tactician, the absence of Johnny Sexton would be the absence of a true and proven leader. Asked about Sexton’s leadership qualities, Ross Byrne says:

“Well, he’s the captain, do you know what I mean? So that probably speaks for itself.

“The amount of experience he has – I think this is his fourth World Cup, well over 100 caps, however many times [189] he has played for Leinster, and he’s played in France, as well. His experience is second to none.

“And then, obviously, you have the quality that he brings on the pitch, but then his knowledge and detail off the pitch, is absolutely crucial for the squad.”

28 now and a steady hand at Leinster for years now, Byrne is still not fully settled in this Ireland squad but there is a sense he is getting there. Getting put forward for a big media day and a jersey launch with Henderson and O’Mahony is no accident, and it is another show of faith in him by the management.

This is exactly where he always wanted to be. He is coming around to the notion that he is here on merit and it is exactly where he belongs.

Ireland jerseyRoss Byrne was speaking at the launch of Canterbury’s Ireland Rugby World Cup Jerseys which will be worn by the team in France this autumn. The jerseys are on sale now at Canterbury.com, and via Intersports Elverys, in store and on Elverys.ie.

WATCH  HOUSE OF RUGBY  HERE:

Related Articles:

WATCH: Liverpool BOTTLED the title race 🤬 | Who will win the Premier League?