Former Leinster, Ireland and Lions hooker Shane Byrne has spoken about his struggles to make the international grade, and his memories of the ill-fated 2005 Lions tour to New Zealand.
Speaking to RTÉ Sport in the latest episode of Different Class, Byrne revealed his desperation to play for Ireland and the remarkable story behind his first international cap.
Although he would eventually go on to win 41 caps for Ireland, and four for the British and Irish Lions, Byrne was a relatively late come to the senior stage.
He had many ‘A’ caps, and even a ‘B’ game, but struggled to take the final step up to the national team in a period when Keith Wood was the first-choice hooker.
With Wood away on the 2001 Lions tour, Byrne was ready to take his chance against Romania, and he recalled his frustration at not having secured a first cap, and the importance he had attached to that game against Romania.
“It had become this monster in my life,” Byrne said. “Everything was teed to it: just bloody get there, just on the plane, get on the pitch and then get that monkey off my back.”
His hopes looked dashed, though, when, in the final AIL game before the Test, he suffered a grade two tear in the medial ligament in his left knee, and a grade three tear in his right ankle.
He credited Ailbe McCormack, then physiotherapist for Ireland, with helping him to make the field.
“He said, ‘Look. I know how much this means to you ... I’ll get you through it. I will tape this up as much as it needs to be, and if you can take the pain, I’ll get you there, get you on to the park’.
“And thankfully he did, and he didn’t tell anyone. I’m sorry now, Ailbe, for getting you in trouble! I owe absolutely everything to him.”
Asked whether he had been concerned about the possibility of long-term damage, Byrne’s response was simple: “I didn’t care. The pain goes away. Getting your cap lasts.”
Byrne called the 2005 disastrous Lions Tour to New Zealand and spoke about what it meant to be selected for the touring squad.
“It’s just incredible. Absolutely amazing,” he said.
“Getting on the Lions is, you know, it’s an achievement in itself. But then immediately a different set of priorities click in: you’re not happy that you’re just travelling, you then want to get on the starting Test side.”
He also wondered whether the nature of the “failed experiment”, wherein Clive Woodward picked a squad of unprecedented size, might have been the reason he got to travel in the first place.
In 2005, Byrne also ended his association with Leinster and moved to Saracens, a time he described as “an absolute nightmare”.
He had expected to get a final, improved deal from the IRFU, having made it in to the national side and also having been picked for the Lions. He spoke about his devastation when the IRFU offered him a one-year deal with a 30% reduction on what he had been earning.
“I know it’s not all about money, but look, it was my livelihood,” he said. “Obviously I didn’t want to go.”
That year also marked the end of his international career, against, of all sides, Romania.
“I remember coming off the pitch, and sitting in the changing room, and going ... ‘Isn’t this, kind of, the closing of a circle?’”
Famous for his mullet haircut, which was a feature throughout his career, Byrne spoke about how it had caused him some difficulties.
“I was dropped twice out of the squad for not getting my hair cut. Directly,” he said, recounting a story after a tour in 1994.
“[Management] said, ‘Good tour. Pull your socks up.’
“Because, coming from a Gaelic background, my socks were around my ankles... and I was like, ‘No. What has my hair got to do with rugby?'
“And I was dropped from the squad straight away.”