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10th Sep 2018

Ross Byrne paying back Leinster’s faith, and his own, after career defining decision

Patrick McCarry

A supporting character in the Joey Carbery to Ulster/Munster saga, it must have felt strange to share a table with him and Joe Schmidt near the end of last season.

Byrne started 19 of his 26 appearances for Leinster in their double-winning season (Johnny Sexton started 11) and was constantly preferred over Carbery by Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster. Such was his form that the 24-year-old made his first Ireland squad at the end of the season.

And yet Carbery was the story. The likes of Kevin McLaughlin and Stephen Ferris, on The Hard Yards, suggested Byrne would be the smarter signing for Ulster but Carbery got the headlines, and then moved to Munster.

In the middle of it all, Schmidt met up with the two out-halves in a Dublin coffee shop. The Ireland head coach has not revealed the details of their conversation but the prospect of an Ulster switch, and more game-time at No,10, was mentioned. Establish oneself as a starting 10 for a province and international prospects would only improve.

Carbery definitely mulled it over and went away to discuss it with his father and the rest of his family. Byrne had a better idea – he would stay at Leinster and keep doing what he was doing. He backed himself to be genuine competition for Sexton and a threat to the No.10 jersey.

For someone to go toe-to-toe with the extremely confident, talkative Sexton tells you a lot about Byrne’s mind-set. He is right where he wants to be.

With Sexton not expected back until week three or four of the Guinness PRO14, Byrne has the opportunity to show he can be the man to bark at his pack, guide his backs and call the big plays. Leinster had a tough enough start of it in the PRO14 – an away swing against Cardiff and Scarlets – but Byrne has more than delivered.

In the opening game of the season, he kicked 10 points and showed a fine range of passing and kicking from hand in Leinster’s last-gasp victory. After picking up his man of the match award, he skirted by a Carbery question but did address his Ireland hopes.

“To be honest, I’m just taking each week as it comes. Getting the win here is the most important thing… For me, I’m just trying to get a win each week and hopefully my form will get me there.”

Having played all 80 minutes at Cardiff Arms Park, the outhalf got in another full 80 against Scarlets at the weekend. Leinster may have lost that one 23-21 but Byrne’s performance was even better than in the opening fixture.

His first task, and task for a frantic opening 10 minutes, was to defend. Scarlets tore into the PRO14 champions from the outset and looked set for some early reward when Hadleigh Parkes shot into the 22 and teed up Gareth Davies.

Byrne was not giving up on this one, however, and his strong tackle and body positioning on the way down prevented what looked to be a certain score. Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Ian Nagle jogged back with forlorn, beaten looks on their faces but their No.10 was still going.

Davies could not quite believe it, and neither could most of those with their eyes peeled to the action at Parc Y Scarlets.

Credit: eir Sport

He was very much a conduit for attacks, with well-placed kicks and nicely timed passes. He passed the ball away in 17 of his 22 possessions and took the ball into contact just five times, making a few metres in return.

His assist for James Lowe’s try was simple and effective play. Leinster had the man advantage and a scrum just to the left of the posts. They stacked the openside and shaped that way but Jamison Gibson Park fizzed one to Byrne that caught out the double-jobbing Gareth Davies.

The Scarlets scrum-half was a step behind where he should have been and, not trusting he would make a covering tackle, left winger Tom Prydie was caught out.

Byrne straightened his run and got his pass away before Prydie wrapped him up. Davies slid in for Lowe but it was too late.

Credit: eir Sports

One of the main reasons Leinster were so happy to hang on to the Dubliner is his goal-kicking. He kicked three conversions in the first half and two of them were from the sidelines.

His accuracy and coolness under pressure turned a tied game into a 14-10 lead at the break.

Credit: eir Sports

Scarlets, once again, started a half well and they scored 13 points in a row to put themselves in a winning position that Rhys Ruddock’s try, converted by Byrne, could not prevent.

Dragons and Edinburgh are at home for the defending champions and you’d expect Sexton to feature in one, if not both, of those games. The Ireland and Lions star remains the first-choice but Byrne has shown his self-confidence has not been misplaced.

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