Latecomer Byrne in a hurry to make another flying start for Wales

Osprey joins forces with club contingent for crucial opener
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was the moment two weeks ago when all of Wales took a mighty gulp. Lee Byrne jumped for a catch with his Ospreys team-mate Mike Phillips, collided with the bigger man on landing and twisted his ankle. The report-ers tapped out the grim scenario on laptops and TV screens: Byrne leaves Perpignan on crutches; Six Nations in doubt. The man himself, since restored to full training and "getting a thrashing" from the Wales coaches plotting a Grand Slam title defence, sees only humour in the disaster notices. "I've given Mike plenty of stick about it," said Byrne. "He'd only been back two matches himself and was trying to nick my high balls already."

The absence of a sprain or a break was a relief to a nation. Having had Byrne revealed to them late in his rugby life – he had been toiling away for Tondu and Bridgend Athletic until the age of 25 – they did not want to lose a man regarded as a shoo-in to be this year's Lions full-back. But injuries have been a burden to the Welsh of late. Phillips, as the now28-year-old Byrne pointed out, is not long recovered from a serious knee problem; likewise Gavin Henson and Shane Williams – two more stalwarts of the 2008 Six Nations clean sweep – have had their knocks.

That Perpignan match was the first time this season the aforementioned quartet of Ospreys plus fly-half James Hook – all of them inked into Warren Gatland's back line, or at least the 22, for their opening Six Nations match in Scotland next Sunday – had been on the field together.

"I've been doing full training, and though the ankle needs a bit of ice afterwards, in the next couple of days it should be back to normal," Byrne said of his own mishap. Reconvening as a squad with the Wales coaches – Gatland, Shaun Edwards, Rob Howley et al – for the first time since last November's win over Australia has been an unalloyed pleasure, give or take the odd hour-long beasting on the training field. Edwards has not changed his penchant for short, sharp sessions; Wales have been training outdoors to replicate the possibility of heavy, wet conditions at Murrayfield.

"They have been intense sessions, really hard," said Byrne. "For that hour there's no talking, no standing around. Shaun likes to put a hit on one of the boys now and again, he gets stuck in and we like that. It's one thing on to another and the boys respond to it well. It's been a hammering in terms of conditioning, too, but it's all good to get us in decent nick for the next six weeks."

Having the Triple Crown and Grand Slam at stake on day one, away from Cardiff, is a repeat of last year, when Wales won at Twickenham. After a desperate first half it was a try by Byrne – arrowing to the corner with his familiar hunched and hard-to-stop gait – converted by Hook which pulled Wales level at 19-19, and the clinching try by Phillips soon followed. Gatland's gallop to a debut Slam continued with wins over Scotland, Italy – when Byrne scored again – Ireland and France.

Since then, however, there have been sobering set-tos with the southern-hemisphere giants until Australia were beaten to round off the autumn. "It was nice to win that last one," said Byrne. "With that and the regions' performances in Europe, we've opened the new year on a high really. We know anything can happen in the Six Nations if we get a good start. People will try to work us out but we won't change our style, the way we like to play rugby."

Not everything has been spiffing in Byrne's rugby world. Last April the Ospreys were set to swoop on a Heineken Cup semi-final in Cardiff but they lost the quarter-final at Saracens. This time they qualified for the last eight – again, a Millennium Stadium semi-final is on offer – but first they must go to Munster, post-Six Nations. "Talking with a few of the other boys, we don't feel we have too much to worry about," he said. "Munster were run close twice in the pool at Thomond Park by Montauban and Clermont. We can take heart from that. And maybe have an all-Welsh final [against Cardiff Blues], you never know."

Everything in its turn and Byrne, the late starter who is well suited to the Six Nations with some Irish in his ancestry and a father from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, knows the value of circumspection. "They say you reach your peak as a player from 25 to 30, and that's how I feel. I try to learn every day from the coaches, and I feel there's definitely more to come from me, to become a better player again. That's what I want to be."

Lee Byrne will be writing exclusively for the 'Independent on Sunday' from next Sunday