Byrne's lesson of pain: Wales and Ospreys full-back contemplates a Lions tour

Tomorrow the Wales and Ospreys full-back faces Harlequins while contemplating a possible Lions tour. He tells Chris Hewett why he has to make the most of every moment
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The Independent Online

This is no bad time to be an Ospreylian. The swankiest regional team in Welsh rugby won their third trophy in four seasons at Twickenham a few months ago – an EDF Energy Cup title to go with the Magners League championships they secured in 2004 and 2007 – and have declared themselves ready to fight on a multitude of fronts this time round. What is more, a good 20 per cent of next year's British and Irish Lions tour party may turn out to be Swansea-based, and between now and then, the public prints will be full of Shane Williams, Ryan Jones, James Hook and Gavin Henson, always assuming the latter can find his way out of the solarium and on to the field.

Confidence is not much of an issue down there in Dylan Thomas country, where the union game's boys of summer appear some way short of their ruin. Yet one of their stand-out performers over the last couple of campaigns, the 28-year-old full-back Lee Byrne, has a highly developed sense of his own transience. He may be the ante-post favourite for the Test position when the Lions go toe to toe with the Springboks in eight months' time, but as the first serious business of the current campaign approaches, he neither expects nor assumes.

"The Lions thing is in the back of my mind and I think about it every now and again," he admitted this week after being named in the squad for Ospreys' opening match in defence of their Anglo-Welsh title, against Harlequins tomorrow. "If you've been in the Test mix for a while, you're bound to wonder a little, aren't you? But I'm not comfortable looking that far ahead. When Wales went down to South Africa at the end of last season, I missed out because I needed an operation on my knee. It cost me two caps, and those two caps would have meant the world to me. The way I look at it, every cap is a treasure. I suppose it's because I came to the international game later than most. The young lads can handle the odd setback because they think there'll be plenty more opportunities down the road. I don't see it that way. If I miss out on a cap, it hurts me."

Byrne has suffered his fair share of hurt just recently. Having made it into Gareth Jenkins' training squad for last year's World Cup in France, he missed out on the final selection and spent the autumn on the wrong side of the Channel. When Wales failed to make it out of their qualifying pool and Jenkins was sacked as a consequence, the caretaker coach Nigel Davies turned to him for a one-off Test with the newly crowned South Africans in November. He missed that, too, thanks to injury. Another cap gone west. Another blow to the spirit.

Since then, however, he has had himself a party. Byrne scored one of the tries that helped Wales to the unlikeliest of victories over England in the opening round of the most recent Six Nations Championship, and by the time he subjected the hapless Italians to a man-of-the-match performance in Cardiff, the Red Dragonhood were well on their way to a Grand Slam precious few had imagined possible. The rugby he played in that tournament was of a high standard indeed, far beyond anything achieved by any of his direct opponents. But for Williams, the electrifying little twinkle-toed sprite on the left wing who monopolised the limelight, he might never have had to buy a drink again.

"I used to watch Shane on the television and think what a hell of a player he was," Byrne said, in reverential tones. "Now, I play alongside him for club and country. It's quite a thing, really. Of course, he's the sort who can make anyone look stupid in training – I hate playing touch rugby when he's one the other side, because he sticks it to me every time. But it's wonderful for the confidence, looking around the dressing room and seeing such talent in every area of the side, whether it be Ospreys or Wales. It gives me a feeling of comfort."

He did not always feel comfortable with his rugby; indeed, he gave up the game entirely during his early teenage years. "Why? Because I couldn't be bothered with it, I suppose," he said. "You can get like that as a teenager, can't you? Can't be arsed, and all that. When I was 17, I decided to give it another go and joined Bridgend Athletic. Suddenly, I thought to myself: 'This could take me somewhere.' I moved on to Tondu [a club close to the heart of J P R Williams, perhaps the greatest Lions full-back of them all], where the old Wales prop Hugh Williams-Jones was coaching. He recommended me to Llanelli Scarlets and my career took off from there."

Returning to the Tondu days just for a moment, did he ever play a match or two alongside JPR? After all, the good doctor was addicted to his fix of thud and blunder well beyond the accepted age of rugby retirement. "Afraid not," Byrne replied. "Even JPR was past it by the time I turned up." What about his native Bridgend, though? One of the great union strongholds of Wales – a single local school, Brynteg, can lay claim to a fistful of Lions, from JPR to Rob Howley and Dafydd James – it has not played host to serious professional rugby since the Celtic Warriors regional team was ruthlessly disbanded and liquidated by the national governing body a little over four years ago. It must be hard to take, even now.

"It's a great area for the sport: Gavin Henson is a Brynteg boy as well, you know," said Byrne, who was educated at the Archbishop McGrath Roman Catholic school up the road. "It would be nice to see big-time union back in the town, but I'm not sure it will ever happen. Rugby league is moving in there now and a lot of the youngsters will be drawn towards that code rather than ours. I have nothing against that – I played a little league myself a few years back, alongside Allan Bateman and John Devereux [two more Lions], and could have gone that way permanently if things had worked out differently. As far as union is concerned, Bridgend people follow the Ospreys these days. It's taken a while, but we're finally seeing a lot of kids wearing our shirts."

Tomorrow's meeting with Quins is unlikely to tell Byrne and his colleagues anything new about themselves: while the Welshmen are at full strength, apart for some injury hassle at scrum-half, the Londoners will head for the Liberty Stadium having played a hard Guinness Premiership match against London Irish last Saturday and another one at Worcester on Thursday night. Still, this is no moment for complacency. Ospreys believe they have the squad to challenge across the board this season, and see this game as handy preparation for an extremely testing Heineken Cup trip to Leicester next weekend – the first step on the road to European redemption following last year's calamitous quarter-final defeat at Saracens, which led, pretty much directly, to Lyn Jones' departure as head coach.

"Yes, I was disappointed to see Lyn go," Byrne acknowledged. "I owed him a lot, not least because he signed me and gave me my opportunity here. He was a big character, and when someone like that departs, he leaves a hole. But it's the job of a player to get on with it, which is what I've done. We've grown together as a squad. We're as close-knit as any old-style club team and we've developed what we think is the right culture. The New Zealanders in the set-up have played a big part in that: Filo Tiatia, Marty Holah, those people.

"No professional turns up for training or runs out on the field for a game thinking 'I'll give it 75 per cent today'. We all give everything we have, all the time. Players with All Black experience have this will to win that brings out something extra in the rest – stuff we didn't know we had. If a ball goes down in training, they let you know about it. If it happens in a match... well, let's just say you don't want to be the one who drops it. Come Monday morning and the video debrief, you'll be made to feel pretty bad."

He has not had many bad moments of late, and now he is fully fit – he played much of last season in a degree of discomfort, hence the clean-up operation on his knee during the summer – he can push on towards a Lions baptism, thereby continuing one of Welsh rugby's grander traditions. Billy Cleaver, Lewis Jones, Terry Davies, JPR, Gwyn Evans and Neil Jenkins have all performed the full-back role in Tests since the post-war resumption of British Isles touring in 1950. Byrne would love nothing better than to be bracketed with those names.

Byrne the Warne fan

*Born 1 June, 1980 in Bridgend, Wales.

*Earned a Welsh schools cap. Has played for Bridgend Athletic, Tondu RFC, Bridgend and Llanelli Scarlets.

*In 2004, he suffered a cruciate knee injury and required another knee operation last season.

*Made senior Welsh debut against the All Blacks in November 2005 at the Millennium Stadium.

*Has 19 caps for Wales and has made 50 appearances scoring 100 points for Ospreys since joining in 2006.

*Reported to have enjoyed reading Shane Warne's autobiography to help him focus.

*Wales assistant coach Shaun Edwards on Byrne: "He's very coachable. Perhaps he used to get a bit too aroused, but he's got all the skills."

*Played in every game of Wales' 2008 Grand Slam winning Six Nations campaign.