Brian O’Driscoll has given his verdict on Ross Byrne as the starting out-half for Leinster in this Saturday’s repeat Heineken Champions Cup final against La Rochelle. Last year in Marseille, Byrne was a 63rd-minute replacement for Johnny Sexton in the decider in Marseille.
He was soon scoring a penalty to push Leinster 21-17 clear, but the Irish province came unstuck in that 2022 showpiece through a late converted Arthur Retiere try at the Velodrome.
However, things since then have hugely changed for Byrne. In his previous half-dozen Champions Cup campaigns, the 28-year-old started in just 14 of his 35 appearances and was always viewed as the second choice to the skipper Sexton.
The veteran’s Leinster career is now over, however, as a Guinness Six Nations injury with Ireland in March sidelined him from getting involved in a Champions Cup campaign where he had already been marked absent from the pool stages over the winter.
That has left the way open for Byrne to take full command and make the No10 Leinster jersey his own, and he is now set to make his eighth successive Champions Cup appearance as their starting out-half.
Ulster, Leicester and Toulouse have been defeated in recent knockout stage weeks with Byrne now starting in the knowledge that Sexton’s provincial career is over – and the legendary O’Driscoll believes that Byrne no longer having to worry about Sexton has been to his benefit. “Yeah, I am sure there is a huge comfort that comes with that in reality,” said O’Driscoll to RugbyPass.
“Having the Leinster captain there looking over your shoulder the whole time, you are just keeping the jersey warm, whereas he now knows he is the man in possession. Johnny hasn’t played a minute of this Champions Cup either so this has very much been Ross and his Leinster team and he has navigated them around the park.
“He has kicked his goals brilliantly, he has facilitated others to really perform and he will want to right the wrongs from last year. It probably wasn’t the world’s greatest cameo in the final when Johnny got injured – he looked a little bit nervous.
“But there is a steelier calmness this time around, a year more experienced, the confidence with the kick against Australia (for Ireland last November), and then more opportunity to get himself in the team without anyone looking over his shoulder about what the opportunities are.
“So, it would be terrific for him if he could guide the team and have a big game himself because his rise over the course of the last year has been all-important to Leinster, but also to Ireland in giving them confidence that there will be some form of life without Johnny Sexton.”