‘Everything comes as second nature’ – Byrne ready to step up against La Rochelle

Updated Apr 28th 2021, 9:16 AM

LOSING A PLAYER of the calibre of Johnny Sexton would be a devastating blow for most clubs, but in Leinster there is a sense of calm heading into this weekend’s massive Champions Cup semi-final date with La Rochelle.

A squad that so often talks about the power of the collective won’t get too hung up on the absence of one individual following yesterday’s confirmation that out-half Johnny Sexton will play no part on Sunday, as he continues to be unavailable for selection following a succession of head injuries.

Sexton was removed during the first half of the province’s quarter-final win at Exeter Chiefs as Leinster trailed 14-7, with his replacement, Ross Byrne, coming on to deliver a superb performance as they powered to a statement 34-22 win.

Sexton, of course, is still Leinster’s inspirational leader and the architect of some of their greatest wins in this competition. However in Byrne, the squad know they have a fine replacement.

The 26-year-old’s career has been blighted by setbacks on the international stage, but at club level he has rarely let his teammates down.

On Sunday, he will get another opportunity to showcase his quality at this level.

“I’ve been very impressed with the quality and the depth within the squad in a number of positions really,” said Robin McBryde, the Leinster scrum coach.

“With regards to Ross driving the team when he came on, I thought he was excellent against the Chiefs.

“He’s all over things, when you see him in the walk through and the jog through everything comes as second nature. The lines of communication are just so quick. It happens really slickly, he steps in and he’s very comfortable obviously. 

“Not that I’ve asked him, but you can guess that he’s probably frustrated with the lack of minutes he’s had with the national camp, but all he can do is keep on playing well and push himself forward. He did that against the Chiefs.”

Of course one man’s gain is another’s loss, and Byrne’s promotion to the starting team comes as Sexton misses out on the last weekend of fixtures before Warren Gatland names his Lions squad next Thursday (6 May).

McBryde, who is part of Gatland’s coaching ticket for the tour to South Africa, says Sexton’s record and experience will likely hold more weight than his current injury struggles when the powers that be sit down to pick their Lions squad.

“I think he’s got enough time and he’s got enough experience,” McBryde continued.

Leinster scrum coach Robin McBryde. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“He proved that in the Six Nations, especially in the last game, the England game. He has got a bit of time on his side. It’s obviously not my area but I’m sure that the rest of the Lions coaches would be looking at it and just assessing the situation.

“They’ve worked with Johnny before on the other Lions trips before. They know what he offers. There’s never an ideal time to get an injury really is there, especially in this year, but I think everybody knows what Johnny is all about, the fact he’s been there for so long, proven match winner in big matches. It’s not ideal but I think people know him well enough.”

Those are issues for next week. First up, McBryde and Leinster have to try negotiate a way past La Rochelle as they chase a record fifth Champions Cup title.

“They’re big, they like to play the game at their tempo so we’ve got to try and get that ball in play up from what it is,” McBryde said.

“I’m not sure what the average is, I think it’s in the high 20s, but we would be far more comfortable pushing that ball in play time up to 40 minutes to get them blowing a little bit. To challenge them fitness wise. If we can do that, it would ask different types of questions of them. 

“Notoriously, the game in France is slow, going from set-piece to set-piece with high bursts of intensity and they have the players to do that. Any loose ball in the turnover, they’re on to it straight away and they’ve threats in behind.

“The more set-piece orientated it is, the lower the ball in play, the more it’s going to suit La Rochelle and their players. Hopefully we can keep the ball alive, be accurate, be comfortable playing with the ball and ask different questions of them.”

Leinster’s path to this point has been relatively comfortable. They easily dismantled Montpellier away in December before brushing past Northampton at the RDS.

Then the disruptions kicked in, with the original pool stages canned as Leinster advanced to a round-of-16 game against Toulon that would never be played due to an outbreak of Covid in the French side’s squad.

As a result, the quarter-final win over Exeter represents the only stern challenge Leo Cullen’s team have experienced in Europe this season. 

“I’m not sure how different (the challenge will be this weekend) but they’re very good at this game, they’re very good at the game that they do play,” McBryde added.

“They understand each other, they’ve got a very effective way of defending the lineout, with (Uini) Atonio and (Will) Skelton really attacking the front seam of any lineout drive that you try and get going.

“They’ve got great linespeed out the back of the lineout, with the back row just flying off the line, putting the first receiver under a lot of pressure.

“At scrum time, because they’re so big, your scrum is going to be under pressure so you’re going to have to be really smart about where you pick your battles there.

“The same as any French team, if you allow them to play on the front foot they’re very dangerous. Defensively, we’re going to have to meet them physically and stop them gaining any sort of momentum.” 

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