The Dragon's fire rekindled: 'Beating England means nothing if we can't win on Saturday...'

Lee Byrne suffered in Wales' humiliation by England last August, before confounding the doubters by igniting their fightback at the weekend. He tells James Corrigan why he hopes this is just the start
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The Independent Online

Twenty years is a long time to wait for anything, but when you are a Welsh rugby fan and that thing just happens to be the very thing you crave above everything else, those two decades can seem on the lengthy side of eternal. Unlike the majority of his nation, Lee Byrne had only been truly desperate for victory at Twickenham for six months. It is fair to say, though, that nobody had a greater sense of fulfilment in south-west London on Saturday evening. This was personal, as well as patriotic.

On 4 August last year, the full-back was held up as one of principal villains for the 62-5 defeat at HQ that acted not so much as a World Cup warm-up than the most chilling reverse since the ice caps began melting. Byrne had appeared a certainty to make Gareth Jenkins' squad for France until that afternoon. Suffice to say, scapegoats never do make ideal travelling companions.

"That was a low point, the lowest," he recalled yesterday at the Wales team base in the Vale of Glamorgan. "Everybody was writing us off before we'd got to the ground and they were bloody right to as well, when you looked at who we'd left out and the size of the England pack. Think, they got to the World Cup final with that team. Yeah, we did feel like lambs to the slaughter. The Welsh team they picked were never going to win up there. There was a feeling amongst the lads of being hung out to dry, but we still had to put on the jersey and do our best for Wales. We were just blown away. I suppose I was one of the players who paid afterwards and I suppose there was a bit of bitterness. I'd be lying if I said there wasn't."

The call he was dreading came from Jenkins not a week later. "It was still a shock," Byrne said. "I placed great emphasis on making that squad. I was devastated, but I just couldn't hang around and cry about it. I had to go back to my region and knuckle back down. I had a long chat with Lyn Jones and Sean Holley [the Ospreys coaches] and we set ourselves goals, to get myself back playing well for the Ospreys. And then to get back in the Wales team."

However positive Byrne managed to sound at the Liberty Stadium that afternoon, he could have been forgiven for doubting, deep down, that he would be re-donning the red shirt so quickly, never mind scoring the try to trigger Wales' incredible comeback. Nothing has ever happened very quickly for Byrne, a man many might suspect as a member of the young Dragonhood lighting all those fires in the Valleys, but who is, in his own words, "not young at all". In fact, until he was hurtling towards his mid-twenties he remained an undiscovered gem, living and playing in his hometown of Bridgend.

"Look, I'm not 21 or 22, I'm 27; so I've got to grasp the chance now," he said. "I was never picked internationally at any age group growing up and only got my first real recognition when I was 23 when I was introduced to Nigel Davies [then the Scarlets' assistant coach, now the WRU's head of development]. It had been a frustrating time up until then, as it was strange but I always believed I was good enough to make it, but hadn't had the opportunity. Going to Stradey was the beginning of it."

Within a season, Mike Ruddock had selected him for Wales, but that proved merely the beginning of the international stops and starts. Since 2005 he has won 14 more caps, which sounds fair enough but which, in this Test-laden professional age, actually marks him down as little more than a fringe player. "Frustrating," is the word he uses to sum it up, which is apt as that is exactly the adjective most Welsh supporters would ascribe to a player who looks a world-beater on his day – and a panel-beater off it. "I realise one game is nothing, that last Saturday could mean nothing at all if I don't perform against Scotland this Saturday. It's all about consistency with me – that's what I have to work on. My aim has to be to cement this position down and lay the foundations for, hopefully, better things to come. There's summer tours, Lions tours, but it's got be one step at a time."

Even his harshest critic – and, perversely, there remain many in the Principality – would find it hard to deny Byrne has talent. A prodigious kicker of the ball out of hand, even Gavin Henson, old rocket boot himself, has had to bow to his Ospreys team-mate. "It goes about 70 metres at the moment, although I am working with Neil Jenkins [the Welsh kicking coach] at getting some variation into it," he said. "How do I kick it so far? I don't know. I asked my parents the other day whether I could kick it miles when I was a kid, but they don't seem to think so and reminded me that I used to play No 8 and actually packed down against Alix Popham [the Wales back-rower] a few times. It's must have just been something I developed from 18 or 19. Anyway, I always wind up Gav [Henson] about it now. I don't have to prove I kick it further than he does. He knows it."

There has been plenty of time for Byrne to joust with Henson in the Wales squad's current lockdown at the Vale Hotel. Byrne has been surprised by the reaction to the England victory. Or what he has seen of it, anyway. "It's strange, all the boys will tell you: When you lose you get bloody hundreds of texts. When you win you don't get any.

"That's probably a good thing, though, just as it's been good that this hasn't been a week off. Usually Wales would come back after beating England and we'd be world champions. It hasn't been like that. Warren and the other coaches just want to keep our feet on the ground and have brought us back to earth with a bump. We looked over all the analysis and they picked out the bad points. That's fair play to them, really. You don't want someone telling you, 'Oh look how well you did'. You can pick out the good points yourself and give yourself a pat on the back if that's what you want. This is the best feeling in any of the national squads I've been involved in. There's such competition for places. There's not been many mistakes made and if there has been, people have been giving each other bollockings. It's great."

Byrne has avoided the brunt of those bollockings, even during the video rerun of that abject Twickenham first-half. If there was one Welshman who stood tall as the rest cowered in that first-half onslaught it was Byrne, so heroic in that role as last-ditch defence. Perhaps that is why he ran off at the break with such a spring in his sidestep. "To me it was like, look they've thrown all they've got at us and they're just 10 points up. Ten points. And we hadn't played any rugby yet. I knew we'd come back. And when we did and that final whistle went, that was the happiest I've ever been on a rugby field. So far." With this late developer, it's wise not to overlook the "so fars".

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