‘Seeing Johnny every day you want to get to his level’

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THE EARLIER-THAN-EXPECTED return of Johnny Sexton to start three consecutive Guinness Pro14 games had limited the early-season exposure for his understudy, but Ross Byrne showed all his quality in the out-half position on Saturday.

Much of the pre-match talk revolved around the two number 10s, and once it became clear Sexton wasn’t going to be involved against Munster, Byrne was given the chance to get the upper hand on his former team-mate, Joey Carbery. 

Byrne was faultless off the tee against Munster. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In producing an assured and confident display in the inter-pro derby, Byrne deputised for the Leinster captain expertly, not only managing the game and kicking 13 points from the tee, but showcasing just how much his work off the ball has improved.

Having started the first two outings of the campaign against Cardiff Blues and Scarlets, Byrne sat out the first home game against Dragons, and with Sexton back in harness, was limited to brief cameos against Edinburgh and Connacht off the bench.

So it was no surprise the 23-year-old was hell-bent on seizing his opportunity at the Aviva Stadium, as he guided Leo Cullen’s side to a fourth straight win over Munster, and their 10th on the bounce at the national stadium.

“It wasn’t anything new,” he said of his pre-match nerves. “I’ve played big games before and, obviously, we got off to a flying start which definitely makes it a lot easier.

“We’re disappointed with how we let them back into the game. We’ll worry about that next week, but I wouldn’t say I was more nervous than usual.”

As he has consistently done, Byrne showed maturity in calling the shots, demonstrating how tactically shrewd he is and underlining a measured capability of orchestrating and controlling a game.

While it was Munster who had large tracts of the game, the hosts were defensively firm at one end and clinical at the other, as they established an early lead through a penalty try and the first of two James Lowe scores, while Byrne’s boot ensured the scoreboard was always ticking over.

The former St Michael’s student — who went off late in the game with cramp — was faultless off the tee, striking all five of his attempts sweet and through, with his third and final penalty in the 71st minute proving crucial in ending Munster’s spirited fightback.

“It is something I’ve been working on very hard over the last few weeks with Emmet Farrell [Leinster kicking coach],” he explained afterwards. “It’s always nice when it pays off like that.

Byrne tackles former team-mate Joey Carbery. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“Just take each kick as it comes and don’t worry about the result too much, instead focus on getting the process right.

“Overall, I’m relatively happy but there’s always areas I can improve on, and you always have to get better if you want to get to the next level.

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“In playing, training and seeing Johnny every day you want to get to his level, and be right up there as the top 10 in Europe and the world.”

Can you get to that level?

“I believe I can, yes.”

And Byrne is certainly moving in the right direction.

In addition to his place-kicking and game-management, it is clear he has worked heavily on his tackle technique and in making nine tackles during his 71 minutes on the pitch, showed a real appetite for work in that busy midfield channel.

“It’s probably something I had to do a lot of because we didn’t have the ball,” he continued. “It is definitely an area I’ve been working on in the last while and over the pre-season. It’s going well.

“Just working on little things in terms of technique and what not, just the little percents you can get right to give yourself an advantage.”

Having toured Australia with Ireland during the summer, Byrne has got a taste of Joe Schmidt’s environment and although he has yet to win his first cap, made a good impression by all accounts Down Under.

Byrne was man of the match against Munster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

There are likely to be opportunities in November, particularly in the fixtures against Italy and USA, but for now Byrne is focused on an important block with Leinster, starting with Friday’s Heineken Champions Cup opener against Wasps at the RDS.

Sexton, having put his feet up over the weekend, will return to captain Cullen’s side for the Pool 1 opener, but once again Byrne has showed Leinster have a more-than-able 10 waiting in the wings.

“At the moment, especially in the block we’re in, it’s such an important part of the season, it can really go a long way to how your season goes,” he added.

“So it’s just taking each game at a time, especially the way the team is rotating a lot — we’ve used over 40 players already, and I’m sure we’ll use a lot more, so when you are given a chance, you have to step up.”

That he did. 

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