Ross Byrne had planned a few days off before going to the Ireland-Australia game along with Ross Molony and other mates the following Saturday. All changed after he finished training with Leinster on the Monday afternoon. He saw a missed call from Andy Farrell, rang him back and was asked into camp as outhalf cover behind Johnny Sexton and Jack Crowley.
Byrne arrived at Carton House that night and began studying the playbook. It had been a while, 20 months to be precise, since playing the last minute against England in the 2021 Six Nations finale. He had been 24th man, before the named replacement, Billy Burns, withdrew that morning.
Some of the players looked a little shocked to see him. He trained at “12″ the next day and was told to stay for the week as cover. Byrne went home on the Wednesday evening, rejoining the squad in the Shelbourne the next day. The 8pm kick-off made for a long match day.
It was while Byrne was kicking with Sexton that the Irish captain felt pain in his calf. Informed he was on the bench about 45 minutes before kick-off, Byrne had his shoulder strapped in time for the warm-up.
Lining up for the anthems, Jack Conan said to Byrne: “I can see it now. You’re going to come on and kick the winner.”
Brought on after Australia drew level, his first action was the restart with just over eight minutes left. When the replacement Irish front-row helped to win a scrum penalty, the captain, James Ryan, wasn’t having much say in what happened next.
“I knew straight away I was going for it. To be fair, I looked at him smiling and then he knew straight away that I was going to go for it. He smiled and nodded.”
The kick was five metres from the right touchline and 45 metres from the posts. “Watching it back afterwards I was like: ‘Jeez, that was probably way further than I thought.’ Because I’m not the longest kicker at all.”
Byrne has always been a goalkicker. For whatever reason, he’s always been able to zone out from the game’s circumstances.
“People have asked me how do I do it? I don’t know, to be honest. It’s just something I’m comfortable doing, I suppose. When I was on the bench I had prepared myself for a moment – well, hopefully – like that.”
His routine was interrupted by referee Ben O’Keeffe’s 20-second warning.
Initially, Byrne didn’t hear the “20″ so asked O’Keeffe. “That was fine. Twenty seconds is loads of time. Ten seconds would have been different,” he says, laughing.
“I knew as soon as I hit it. It was a nice feeling. The weather was pretty good as well, whereas the day before the wind was tricky. From that side, the ball was moving quite a bit. But for November it was as good as you’re going to get. It was as sweet as I could have it, really.”
And as sweet a moment as he’s had in an Irish jersey? “For sure,” he says with a wry smile. Had Australia scored a try in their last forays into the Irish 22 the moment would have been gone. “That’s the thing, no one remembers then and it wouldn’t have mattered.”
Byrne had post-match interview obligations but will never know what he said. “I was full of adrenalin because I’d only played eight minutes or so as well.”
But he does remember Farrell walking past as Byrne did a radio interview and saying: “Never in doubt.”
“It was a good night,” recalls Byrne with a chuckle, evidence of which was Molony tweeting at 2.30am: “Ross Byrne never left.”
The only disappointment was that his parents, Jane and Pat, were not there, having been to almost all of his games.
That was Byrne’s 14th cap, yet his only two starts were away to England; the 57-15 2019 World Cup warm-up defeat en route from Portugal, and an 18-7 loss at an empty Twickenham in the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup.
Does he feel hard done by? He pauses and, laughing again, quietly says: “Probably, yeah.”
For the former, he adds: “I probably took a lot of the criticism, rightly or wrongly. Funnily enough, I actually thought I started the game really well. No one ever talks about that. I nailed a touchline conversion, kicked a penalty from 45 metres. We were winning after 25 minutes, but after that we collapsed. England were a seriously good team and everyone saw what they did to the All Blacks in the semi-final. But it was definitely one of the lowest days I’ve had playing rugby.”
Chatting during the week, Byrne is in his customary easygoing and engaging mood, but that day will always hurt a little.
Over the last two seasons, Byrne’s goal-kicking success ratio has been 88 per cent. He’s an enabler and also – touch wood – very durable. Byrne played in 24 of Leinster’s 29 games last season and went the full 80 in eight of his 15 starts. This season he has been an ever-present in Leinster’s eight wins, starting five. Indeed, this is the third season running that Byrne has spent more minutes at “10″ for Leinster than the other outhalves combined, as also happened in the 2017-18 season.
“I think he does everything really well,” says Stuart Lancaster. “He makes the team tick, there is no doubt about that. I think his core skills are very good, his passing and catching off both hands, and his understanding of the game is excellent.
“He’s played for us in many big games. I’ve coached him now for seven years and he knows what I’m going to say before I even say it. We know each other that well. There are times when I’m thinking things in the box and he’s doing them on the field at the same time.
“He’s learnt a huge amount from Johnny. He’s had a great role model and he’s always had great people pushing him from behind whether it is Ciarán [Frawley] or Harry [Byrne], or Joey (Carbery) when he was here.”
Leinster have a history of brothers in the squad, but never two in the same specialist position.
“Yeah, it’s a funny dynamic,” Byrne admits. “It drives us both on. We’re competitive with each other as you can imagine. We always have been. But we get on incredibly well. We’d be unbelievably close. We speak a lot about rugby and different things. Ultimately, we both want to be playing, but that’s for the coaches.”
Harry’s return last week as a replacement against Glasgow – the brothers playing alongside each other as a 10 and 12 – was his first game in almost six months.
In tandem with their other brother Michael, Byrne has started a new business venture, Starfolio, with Mark Littleton, the owner of Mosaic, a web and app development agency.
“Starfolio is a marketplace or platform that connects brands or fans with stars, who can be professional sportsperson, a social media influencer, a chef, someone that does public speaking – anyone, I suppose, who has an audience and who people are willing to hire for services,” says Byrne.
“The platform is for talent and covers every sector: sports, fashion, make-up, chess, music, yoga instructors, nutritionists, you name it. I’m with [sports marketing agency] Navy Blue, so we work alongside them, and this is to make life easier for agents as well.”
There is no charge, or contract, to join, and the business went live last week after months of planning, giving Byrne an insight into what he calls the real world outside the bubble of professional sport.
He is 27, and his current contract expires at the end of the season. Needless to say, Byrne is a wanted man, but it’s hard to envisage him moving at this juncture given how much he loves playing for his native province.
Besides, he doesn’t want to jeopardise his Irish ambitions, so soon after putting his foot in the door again; after seven seasons of good coaching and high training standards, he believes he’s playing his best rugby to date.
Nor has he given up hope of playing in next season’s World Cup.
“In the next few weeks we’ll be playing some of the best teams in Europe, starting with Ulster this weekend, so that’s another opportunity to put your name forward, but to be honest there’s no point in me wasting energy on stuff that’s outside my control. All I can control is my performances.”
Nope, Ross Byrne never left.