Matt Williams: Inspirational Byrne rewarded for his patience and perseverance

Despite considerable adversity over the years, the Leinster man honed his game and never quit on his ambition to once again wear Ireland’s number 10 jersey

From his experiences leading elite teams, the American basketball coach Kevin Eastman learned that “champions do not become champions when they win the event, but in the hours, weeks, months and years they spend preparing for it”.

The boxing great Joe Louis observed that “a champion doesn’t become a champion in the ring, he’s merely recognised in the ring. His ‘becoming’ happens during his daily routine”.

The Australian actor FM Alexander said that “people do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures”.

The concept of developing great habits in private that can propel you towards success in public is not a recently created philosophy.


When confronted with adversity the Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote: “The true man is revealed in difficult times. So when trouble comes, think of yourself as a wrestler whom God, like a trainer, has paired you with a strong young buck. For what purpose? To turn you into Olympic class material”.

Epictetus would have us embrace our hard times as a student would a respected mentor.

Seconds prior to the kick-off at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome last Saturday the camera panned to the Irish team huddle. Arms linked, every Irish face in that circle was turned towards Ross Byrne. He was not the captain, but for the first time in many years he was Ireland’s starting outhalf and he was leading. He was demanding from his teammates what he needed from them to continue their march towards a Grand Slam.

Standing in the Italian sunshine, Byrne’s journey to once again wear the Irish number 10 jersey personified the words above. The tipping point for Byrne came in August 2019 when Ireland were smashed in World Cup warm-up match at Twickenham.

Playing under the burden of a failed game plan, Byrne operated behind an Irish forward pack that was humiliated by their English opponents. The blame for that day’s cluster of errors from coaches and the ill-prepared senior players landed on the shoulders of the outhalf.

The hard times had come.

What demons of disappointment he had to exorcise before he could rebuild his confidence we may never know. He never made any excuses, or blamed anyone, or uttered a bitter word. His exile was public but very private.

Over the years he has endured the frustration of seeing Joey Carbery, Jack Carty, Billy Burns and his own brother Harry all provided with opportunities to be Johnny Sexton’s understudy. Even the young and talented Jack Crowley was given his start before Byrne.

Added to all this pain was having the seemingly immortal Sexton still starting ahead of him at Leinster. In big games his jerseys always carried number 22, never the number 10. Weaker characters would have despaired but as Muhammad Ali said: “The will must be stronger than the skill”.

In private, far away from the public’s gaze, Byrne toiled away, building habits of excellence. Taking the ball deeper towards the defensive line, getting his hips square to the try line so he became an attacking threat and lifting the quality of his goal-kicking to world class standards. Byrne worked hard and never gave up hope that another chance would finally come his way.

The US Navy SEALS say “luck is the residue of preparation”. Last November after injuries to Carbery and Sexton, Byrne was provided with a drop of luck. He was called on for last minute selection to sit on the bench against Australia. Late that day, the years of habitual practice empowered Byrne to kick the match-winning points to defeat the Wallabies.

He who was once lost was now found.

The Ross Byrne who was wearing number 10 on his back in Rome was a different beast from the player who had trudged off at Twickenham in 2019. During last week’s anthems his face told the story of a man who had stared deeply into rugby’s abyss and for years was forced to endure the agony of a lost opportunity. Finally, a path to redemption had appeared and no power on earth was going to deny him his second chance.

Rugby, like all sports, inspires us because within its realm lay all the dreams and possibilities of our youth. This two-sided blade also carries the certainty of encountering adversity, with all the disappointments that the game can deliver.

This is why we play sport when we are young, so we can learn to build our resilience as we begin to understand these lessons that we only fully comprehend long after our boots are growing mouldy in a box in the garage.

Byrne’s journey tells us that what other people think of us is an irrelevance. It is what we think of ourselves that counts. His experience demonstrates that the rewards for building habits of excellence are not just for a single season but will continue across the span of our lives.

Perhaps most importantly, Byrne is witness to the fact that under no circumstances, for any reason, even for a moment, should we ever, ever show that worst of human frailties and give up.

The possibilities in life are so beautiful and the journey is too heartbreakingly brief to toss our dreams away.

Understandably, people will continue to argue about who is the best understudy to the great Sexton. What is beyond argument is the inspiration created by Ross Byrne’s determination to never quit on his dream and once again wear Ireland’s number 10 jersey.