Byrne prays for time in the limelight as top No 2

Keith Wood may have retired, but the Leinster hooker still has a fight on his hands to secure his succession
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You will have to take my word for it, but it was Shane Byrne who brought up the subject. "At least I won't be remembered just for the hair," said the Leinster hooker, towards the end of our interview. Thank goodness for that. Up to that point, all we'd had to talk about were his 24 Tests for Ireland, his unique total of more than 100 caps for his province, and his chances of edging out Munster's Frankie Sheahan as the Six Nations successor to the iconic Keith Wood. Without him mentioning the hair, we might have been finished in, ooh, under an hour.

So the fact that 'the mullet' had hitherto been left to one side was nothing to do with a lack of professionalism on your reporter's part. Rather that James Shane Byrne finds himself in an intriguing position at the outset of the Championship. Even more intriguing than the usual one, which is thrashing around precariously between two daft props, with a couple of second rowers poking their noses into other people's business.

Wood retired at the World Cup in Australia, having staved off a persistent neck injury for one last hurrah, only for it to stick in the throat somewhat with a 43-21 defeat by France in the quarter-finals. As the departing captain embraced his opposite number, Fabien Galthié, another scene on the Melbourne pitch involved Byrne exchanging what appeared to be a meaningful word with Eddie O'Sullivan, the coach. Was it a "now is your hour" address from O'Sullivan? Or perhaps a "pick up that water bottle from over there, would'ya"? The truth, according to Byrne, was that it was a well-meant apology in trying circumstances. "Eddie had used most of the bench," said Byrne, "and he was explaining it had been a hard decision. With the World Cup slipping away, obviously you feel pretty miserable not being out there instead of gathering splinters in your backside." Perhaps O'Sullivan was also expressing regret - Ireland were badly outplayed, at least in the first half which ended 27-0. But Byrne makes a salient point. "It was probably fitting that Keith played to the end, in his last international. He's been an incredible servant."

Surely now, though, the 32-year-old Byrne, having been first-choice while Wood endured a lengthy pre-World Cup rehabilitation - and playing a prominent role in a record Ireland run of 10 straight wins - is a shoe-in as the number one No 2? Unfortunately, sport doesn't work like that. Byrne, from Co. Wicklow south of Dublin, has been around the national squad for a decade, while racking up those 112 appearances for Leinster (the next highest total is the back rower Victor Costello's, in the 90s). For several years Byrne carried tackle bags for Wood or Sheahan, and it was not until 2001, and a friendly in Romania, that he made his Test debut. Little wonder, then, that even with Wood gone, Byrne takes nothing for granted.

"It's the luck of the draw," he said. "My opportunity came in the Six Nations of 2002. The line-out was getting abuse from the critics, and though it certainly wasn't all Frankie's fault, he got dropped. We turned it around and became one of the best line-outs around - I think one of the best in the world if you look back at the World Cup. Frankie is one of the easiest guys to get along with, we help each other out. We'll beat the begorrah out of each other in provincial games, but when we get together, although it may be a cliché, it's Club Ireland. This is the best set of guys I've ever been involved with."

Wood has recently backed Sheahan, a fellow Munster man, to be his replacement in the green jersey. And in the initial stages of the Heineken Cup immediately following the players' return from Australia, it seemed the Munster front rowers Marcus Horan, Sheahan and John Hayes were getting better reviews than Leinster's Reggie Corrigan, Byrne and Peter Coyle. "It might have been handy if we'd had an international straight after the World Cup," Byrne conceded. "I was certainly No 2 to Keith at that stage. But it's not a case of Frankie catching up - he was never behind. He is more than capable, and plays a hard, physical game. We both play a lot tighter game than Keith. Very few people could do what he does, even fewer could do it better. I'm more set-piece orientated, but you're never happy with what you have. You can always get fitter, and stronger. The game is increasing in pace every year. Obviously to get the ball in hand more is an aim, but it's not easy if you're stuck at the bottom of a ruck."

Nevertheless, as the year turned, Byrne displayed some decent running skills in a Leinster win over Cardiff in Dublin, with O'Sullivan - dutifully ubiquitous throughout the Heineken tournament - looking on. Leinster failed to qualify for the quarter-finals, unlike Munster, but Sheahan's cause was not helped when he failed to turn out for the final two pool matches, owing to a knee cartilage injury. Meanwhile, the third of Ireland's experienced hookers, Connacht's Bernard Jackman, was helping his province through to the semi-finals of the Parker Pen Cup.

And so to Stade de France today where the Blarney Army will be wiping down the palms and heading out for an immediate rematch with their World Cup nemesis. "It won't be a case of revenge," said Byrne. "I think Ireland are one last step away from being a team who can challenge in every match we play. In the second half against France, last time, we got back in there, but it was too late, and that's been the flaw."

But seeing as we did indeed get on to the subject, was the hair, I carelessly ventured, looking a bit more sculpted these days? "If it is," Byrne quickly replied, "it's not by design, I can assure you." Let's put it down instead to the sweat of an honest hooker, one who says his heart is with Leinster, but for whom "Ireland is always the bonus".

IRELAND FACTFILE

Coach: Eddie O'Sullivan

Captain: Brian O'Driscoll

Assistant coach: Declan Kidney

Ground: Lansdowne Road (capacity: 49,250)

Anthem: Ireland's Call

Triple crown wins: 10 (1926, 28, 36, 49, 53, 67, 89, 90 91, 94)

Grand Slam wins: 1 (1948)

Biggest win: Ireland 60 Italy 13 (2000)

Biggest defeat: Ireland 6 England 46 (1997)

IRISH MEMORY JONATHAN BELL (Debut 1994, 36 caps)

Jonathan Bell has answered Ireland's call 36 times in a 10-year career, and has scored eight Test tries from centre, but when the time finally comes to settle down by the fire and mull over old memories, he's going to have a bit of a problem.

"I don't have too many favourite Five Nations memories," he explains in his Ulster-tinged tones, "because we lost most of the matches when I was playing." Indeed, between 1995 and 1999, when Bell won most of his Irish caps, the men in green only managed four wins. And they were all against Wales.

"I suppose my favourite memory must be my first Test try, way back in the Five Nations of 1995. I was only 20 or so, playing against Scotland at Murrayfield, so it was a huge thing," he says.

"One game that stands out was against Wales in Cardiff in '97," Bell adds. "We actually won the game, at the old Arms Park. We'd been getting a lot of abuse in the run-up and the pressure was on us to perform. For once we did and came away with a victory, 26-25. I just remember feeling a huge amount of relief."

Bell scored a try, helping his country build what seemed an unassailable half-time lead. Wales came back, with two tries from Ieuan Evans and another from Scott Quinnell. But the Irish held on. It didn't save them from the wooden spoon but it did prolong the Irish's remarkable record of success in Cardiff that has held from 1983 to the present day.

Jonathan Bell's Five Nations experience has been typically Irish, with more losses than wins. But - being Irish - that doesn't mean he's complaining.

Martin Pengelly

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