Shane Byrne had never seen so many Leinster supporters at a game in France. He appreciated it, and the way the players were allowed space as they waited for flights out of Biarritz last Saturday. In his 12th season at Leinsterit's not getting any easier to cope with underachievement.
He may have felt like crawling under a rock, but it wasn't an option. After a few hours spent with his wife, Caroline, and their twin girls on Sunday, it was off to Citywest for another Ireland squad assembly.
Given the previous day's results, the contrast in mood between the Munster and Leinster contingent couldn't have been more stark. Leinster had lost 32-21, Munster had beaten Bourgoin 26-3. Training was cancelled. Byrne went to the gym but chucked it in after a while, feeling "like a wet. We never lose playing well. It's always when we mess up. But Munster have lost when they've tried their damnedest to turn it around.
"This year, it seemed like it was one thing going wrong after another. The seeds of the problem have to go back to the Felipe Contepomi incident [he missed the pool stages of the Heineken Cup due to an administrative error], then the injuries we picked up along the way and not having a steady fly-half to work with. But at the end of the day, we didn't do ourselves justice.
"Munster doing well makes it hard on us. It's the pain of knowing we could have been there. That's why you'll get Leinster guys not even watching the quarter-finals."
It's also possible that Leinster may have played together for the last time as a side. It's rumoured that most of the first-choice backs are being courted by French or English clubs, as are some forwards. Byrne will stick around. He's a home bird, who is already lending a hand with the family waste-disposal business. And there's also the small matter of again trying to fill Keith Wood's boots.
Byrne should play in Ireland's first post-Wood game, next Saturday in Paris. That said, it's hard to know how Eddie O'Sullivan would have called it had Frank Sheahan been fully fit. Based on his comments to Rugby World last month, there can be little doubt which way Wood was thinking. While he rated Byrne's line-out throwing as "really excellent", Sheahan is described as being "a lot bigger, a stronger scrummager, probably more effective around the field".
Byrne hadn't read the piece, but he wasn't too surprised. "I'd never expect too many compliments from Keith," he says. Though there are only six months between them, and they were introduced to the national squad at around the same squad, Byrne couldn't get within Wood's reach for the next decade. Then, during Wood's sabbatical with Munster (1999-2000), Leinster travelled to Temple Hill for an early-season inter-provincial. Within minutes, the two were swinging at each other.
"I enjoyed that all right," Byrne says with a smile. "That was frustration coming out. I'd gone on a couple of tours, been to the World Cup in 1995, was involved in the 1997 Five Nations, then - gone. People were leapfrogging me. It was very hard when the main guy in your position is playing in England. You couldn't get your hands on him.
"So when he came to play for Munster, I took my chances. So did he, mind you. It was no holds barred. I respect the man, he's hard. For years we used to hate each other - we'd try and knock each other's blocks off. Later, it became a very good business relationship, and at the end, we got on great."
In Wood's absence last season, Byrne produced near- flawless line-out throwing in atrocious conditions to set up wins over Australia and Argentina. During the ensuing Six Nations, Ireland lost just six balls on Byrne's throw. Now that his chance has come again, he is ready.
"There's no denying what Wood achieved," he says. "It's beyond just being a player. He created this atmosphere around himself. All the same, I smiled last year when he was injured and the papers started to ask questions. With my pluses, did Ireland really need him? I knew that once he was back the same reporters would be saying, 'Hooray, he's back'. But it was a nice pat on the back." Byrne knew the World Cup would be Wood's swansong and realised he would see little action (as it turned out, he made two brief appearances off the bench). He came home feeling flat.
He admits it showed in some of his Leinster performances, but their set-piece play was a rare positiveagainst Biarritz. Right now, he is Ireland's first-choice hooker, and he wants to get on with it. The waiting ends in Paris on Saturday. There could be no better way to ease the pain of last week by returning to France and winning.Reuse content