Lee Byrne: 'There's always a certain amount of hatred on the day'

Now he has been cleared to play, Lee Byrne is determined to make it four wins in a row for Wales over England, hears James Corrigan
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There was a period during the Nineties and Noughties when telling a Welshman he was in danger of missing a trip to Twickenham was akin to informing the England team bus in the Seventies that the Severn Bridge was shut for cleaning. No longer. When he stepped out of that appeal hearing in Glasgow on Tuesday night the 16th man was an ecstatic man.

Lee Byrne had been slapped with a shocking two-week ban for his run-on role in "Subgate", the bizarre minute of play a fortnight ago when the Ospreys inadvertently fielded an extra player against Leicester. As his national coach, Warren Gatland, was to say: "Fortunately, common sense has prevailed." So the full-back is clear to run out in the Six Nations opener today.

He will do so with conviction flowing through his veins and nostalgia mainlining to his heart. For even if Byrne, like the majority of his country folk, struggles to refer to Twickenham as "HQ", the venue does hold a special place in his affections. And all because of one game. Before it he was widely regarded as a talent but way too flaky. After it, the image of "The Rock" set in. "It was where the good times began for me," recalls the 29-year-old. "That win in 2008 really kick-started my career. When I'm asked about Twickenham, it's the first thing I think of – that corner I scored in. It turned everything around. For me and for Wales."

He can be forgiven any mist in his eyes as it did happen to be the first touchdown of Gatland's reign, which sent the Dragonhood on the way to their first win in south-west London for more than two decades, and from there to the Grand Slam. Yet there was more driving Byrne up the M4 on Thursday than the memories of two years ago. In short, he plainly believes Wales are superior. "There isn't anything for us to fear," he says. "Look at our team, we're better players man for man." And it is not simply three successive Six Nations defeats of England which have helped him arrive at this conclusion.

For starters there is the little matter of the Lions last summer, when Wales players monopolised the Test XV and the England players monopolised the water bottles. "We played with the English boys every day over there and they're good players – but they're not world-beaters by any means," he says. "I'm sure they were surprised by us. They probably heard the stories that the Welsh guys weren't fit. Well, Craig White [the Wales and Lions fitness coach] says our fitness results are better than any nation's."

Except Byrne's own fitness results did not stack up at all well in South Africa. Going into the tour he was touted as the finest No 15 in the game, but a foot injury prevented him from even finishing the first half of the first Test. He calls the experience "devastating" and it's easy to understand why; on both a personal and professional level. "The English lads were top guys and I spent a lot of time with Simon Shaw and Ugo Monye," he says. "It's funny, but they probably said the same about me – how I was one of the players who had really bugged them before. And then they got to know me."

The Lions broadened his mind as obviously as all those weights have broadened his shoulders. He readily admits his former attitude to the Red Rose, when he was a teenager playing his youth rugby in Bridgend. "The songs – their chariots and what they should do with them – have always been there," he says. "You have memories watching in the clubhouse with your mates. I'd be singing it with them. It's different being involved. The day of the game you're so passionate you want to win so much and there is a certain amount of hatred. But as soon as you're off the field, you shake hands and you're mates again. I've got nothing against English people in general."

The English, and in particular his English girlfriend, will be glad to hear it. What they won't be so delighted to learn is that Byrne was not best pleased with his performance against Leicester in that Heineken Cup maker-or-breaker. Everyone else at the Liberty Stadium, meanwhile, was impressed that a player making just his third appearance in four months could put in such a faultless display ("Subgate" notwithstanding).

"I was speaking to Rob Howley [the Wales skills coach] about it and I said to him, 'but I didn't do anything against Leicester'," he says. "You see, if I don't make a break or score a try I come off the field thinking I did nothing. It's a good thing I suppose. It shows I've got high expectations."

The loft of Byrne's ambition is replicated throughout the Wales squad, although perhaps not throughout the Welsh public. A humiliating 33-12 defeat to Australia finished off the autumn series and, Wales being Wales, ended Gatland's honeymoon period as well. The side have won eight out of their last 10 Six Nations matches, but the mood in the Valleys going into this Championship has been marked with trepidation rather than anticipation.

"If we'd done all right in the autumn people would be expecting us to go into the Six Nations and win it again," reasons Byrne. "So maybe it's done us a favour in a strange way. We're starting back where we were in 2008 when no one had any faith in us at all. Maybe the people in Wales don't believe it, but we've certainly the belief in the squad that we can win the Six Nations."

This first game, says Byrne, is crucial in that quest. Just as it was two years ago. He was a frustrated wannabe in those days, understandably fearing from where the next set-back might emerge. Now all he can spot is the opportunity. "I just remember two years ago when we were going up to Twickenham and everyone was on about 22 years," he says. "We put that ghost to bed and it gave us the momentum. The belief we had built by the end of the Championship was incredible – we felt we could beat anybody. So it's all about getting that first win and taking the confidence through again. If we can win at Twickenham it's going to be massive for us. We could go all the way again."

Spotlight on Wales

*Key men

Jamie Roberts and James Hook, chalk-and-cheese midfielders who could form a particularly potent partnership.

*One to watch

Adam Jones is rated by some as the world's best tight-head prop.

*Can they win it?

For sure, but they must do a job at Twickenham today.