Brendan O'Brien: Is Ross Byrne the most underappreciated rugby player in Ireland?

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Brian Adam
Professional Blogger, V logger, traveler and explorer of new horizons.

It’s not a theory based on any scientific evidence but you could still build a strong case for theargument that Joey Carbery is the unluckiest player in Irish rugby right now.

News this week that the Munster 10 is to undergo further surgery on an ankle injury, at a time when he is already sidelined thanks to a wrist problem, has all but put the tin hat on a season ruined by unlucky breaks.

And Carbery has known more than enough injury woe stretching back the last couple of seasons as it is.

This latest run of ill-fortune has its genesis in the ankle injury suffered against Italy last August and the fact that the same joint is still such a cause of concern is the last shred of proof, were it required, that the decision to bring him to Japan, where he was a bit-part player and short of full fitness, has blown up in everyone’s face.

Carbery’s wretched situation also lends itself to another theory: That Ross Byrne is the most underappreciated player on this island right now.

And, before we get into that, it’s no leap to suggest that Carbery’s fitness chart might look very different right now had more faith been invested in the man with whom he once vied for the role of understudy to Jonathan Sexton at Leinster as well.

Byrne, like Carbery, is 24 years of age now but he pales in comparison in the eyes of many. The snide retort when the former’s bona fides are presented has so often been that ‘he isn’t even the best out-half in his family’. His younger brother Harry, incidentally, starts tonight against Glasgow in what is his eight provincial cap of the campaign.

If Byrne lacks something then it is the touch of pizzazz that Carbery brings to the playmaking role and the experience and class of Sexton who was world player of the year in 2018. But it’s worth noting just where he stands in relation to both now that Andy Farrell and Ireland are in such need of another reliable and fit out-half.

Byrne has already played 84 times for Leinster. Over a quarter of those have been European fixtures and his eight Champions Cup starts have all yielded wins. Every one of them. Sexton at the same age had just eight European runs in his legs while Carbery has featured 15 times in the competition but just seven of those have been in the No.10 jersey.

Byrne’s first big shift in Europe was in Franklin’s Gardens in December of 2016 when he replaced an injured Carbery — due to another ankle problem — after just 15 minutes. Still only 21, it was his crossfield kick to Rory O’Loughlin that finally made the game safe against Northampton that day on the hour. It was a gutsy move brilliantly executed.

Byrne was a big-game player with St Michael’s, with whom he won a Leinster Senior Schools Cup as a fifth year.

He has since brought a maturity, a sense of calm, and abundant self-confidence to Leinster ‘A’s, Ireland U20s and to the senior club game. Why then are we still at a
juncture where he has only six caps and 87 minutes under his belt with Ireland?

There must be a deepening well of frustration felt at this point.

When Ireland toured Australia in the summer of 2018 Joe Schmidt threw in a handful of younger players, Carbery included, for the first Test in order to strengthen his depth. By the time they returned home with a 2-1 series defeat Byrne was the only player in the 32-man squad who had not been handed some game-time across the three games.

It must have made for a particularly long long-haul flight back home.

Schmidt had named him on the bench for the decisive Test when he described him as “a smart kid” but it was Sexton who slotted over a decisive 78th-minute kick to seal the victory. That’s fair enough given the stakes at the time but there was always the sense during Schmidt’s time that Byrne’s face just didn’t fit and that simply has to change under the new regime.

He didn’t make the Six Nations squads in 2018 or in 2019, or the World Cup party when Connacht’s Jack Carty leapfrogged him and ended up starting on that fateful day in Shizuoka against Japan.

Though he did well initially, Carty was painfully short on Test experience. Even more so than Ian Madigan four years before against Argentina in Cardiff.

Byrne’s biggest audition on the Test stage remains the 54 minutes afforded in Twickenham last August when a hybrid out-half of Jonny Wilkinson, Dan Carter, and Michael Lynagh would have been utterly impotent against an English side that caught an Irish side on the back of a heavy week training in Portugal and in the midst of a downward spiral.

A start again Italy next week would have been the ideal chance to rectify that oversight/blindspot but who knows what happens with that game now? Only injury or the spread of the coronavirus will prevent Sexton from starting the fifth round game away to France but the skipper will be 35 by the time the team tours Australia in July and Carbery may or may not be fit to travel.

If Byrne’s time isn’t now then it has to be this summer.

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