Wales' forgotten in-form fullback
December 13, 2012
Lee Byrne in try-scoring form for Clermont © Getty Images
Clermont Auvergne's Julien Bonnaire scooped the official Man of the Match award against Leinster on Sunday but there was a familiar face going about his business at fullback for Les Jaunards who put in an equally assured showing. The forgotten man of Welsh rugby Lee Byrne is one of the first names on Clermont coach Vern Cotter's team sheet and a key cog in the wheel that is slowly bulldozing its way through the Heineken Cup and hot on the heels of Toulon and Toulouse in the Top 14.
He made the switch to the French top-flight in the post-2011 World Cup exodus that also saw Mike Phillips and James Hook opt for a cross-Channel move. But unlike his Welsh counterparts, Byrne is now completely exiled from the national set-up.
The Top 14 is not for everyone as Gethin Jenkins is seemingly finding out to his detriment. While the former Cardiff Blues prop and current Toulon loose-head has to cope with the scraps thrown down from the current incumbent No.1 Andrew Sheridan's table, Byrne is carving his own dynasty with Clermont.
It is a home-from-home for Byrne. Comfortably familiar with the Welsh fishbowl mentality when it comes to rugby, having turned out for the Scarlets and the Ospreys, Clermont is another "notch up". He admits that whenever he pops out to the shops he is recognised and while the limelight is nice, for a 32-year-old hailing from Bridgend, anonymity is also a blessing. But regardless of the pitfalls that come with fame and sport, Byrne is loving life in Montferrand and embraces the day-to-day challenges of trying to hold down his shirt in the Clermont side.
"It took a bit of time to settle in, probably a few months," Byrne told ESPN. "But I've really found my feet, I'm feeling confident and you have to when you're playing alongside the likes of [Napolioni] Nalaga and Sivi (Sitiveni Sivivatu). They've got to be two of the best wingers around.
"The game Sivi plays is just incredible and it does help having a solid structure around the team and we have that at Clermont. You have to perform and I'm pretty happy with the way things are going at the moment and hopefully so are the fans.
"You are expected to win silverware and so do the players. The fans travelling everywhere deserve something but it's so special playing at home. It's like playing international rugby whether it's Heineken cup or Top 14 whenever we run out there. It's always going to stick with me throughout my rugby - that memory of playing there."
Such is the transient nature of rugby that players are increasingly being denied the chance to bring down the curtain on their career on their own terms. Injuries, lack of contracts or a sprightly new face impressing in training can mean that players just slump off into the sunset with their legacy is consigned to a Wikipedia page or old dusty programmes. But it looks likely that Byrne will end his domestic career on his own terms, barring injury, but the same cannot be said for his time with Wales.
Little did he know that when the final whistle blew in Wales' 2011 World Cup pool stage match in Hamilton against Fiji that it would be the last time he pulled on the famous jersey. With Leigh Halfpenny currently in possession of the Welsh No.15 berth, Byrne's international career looks to be consigned to his 47-caps - a fact that is hard to comprehend when you see how well he is playing in the Top 14 and the Heineken Cup. But whether it is Rob Howley or Warren Gatland picking the side, it seems that they are not prepared to call upon Byrne's services.
When he made the switch to the Top 14, Byrne re-iterated his desire to play for Wales and the thought that the match against Fiji would be his last for Wales, was not on the radar. "I didn't expect that to be [my final game] but it's looking like it is going to turn out that way. I wanted to go to France and recapture my best form and I've done that, but it's a case of keeping my fingers crossed.
"I've heard nothing (from Wales) really since before the autumn. I hoped I was playing well enough to push for a place in the autumn Tests but it wasn't so.
"All I can do is keep on putting in performances in the Heineken Cup and in the Top 14 and hope that someone is watching. You always want to play international rugby but at the moment I am loving my time at Clermont and if Wales doesn't happen then there's not much I can do about it."
Due to the understanding Wales have with the four regions, they can call upon their Test players outside of the official IRB windows. The same 'understanding' does not necessarily translate cross-Channel with deals having to be struck with individual clubs for specific players. Opting to move to France muddies the waters when it comes to combining club duties with Test requirements but when asked whether he regrets the move to Clermont in any way, as it has seemingly brought an end to his Test career, the answer is succinct and forthright.
In the red of Wales trying to break through the All Blacks defence © Getty Images
"No not at all. I'd never change it. Things didn't work out at the Ospreys so I had to change it. Clermont came in and they have just been great to me. I'm enjoying my rugby and I couldn't ask for more - they are a top four club and have huge ambitions."
They now travel to Leinster on Saturday and a win at the RDS will in all likelihood secure their spot in the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup. There seems to be a lot of excitement surrounding this current batch of Clermont players, but you will struggle to see their coach Cotter raising more than a sly grin on a very rare occasion. He cuts an imposing figure on the touchline but is softly spoken.
Comparable to Byrne's familiarity with the Clermont environment in relation to his home in Wales, Cotter is uncannily similar in voice and ethos to Wales boss Gatland. Whether Gatland calls on Byrne for 2013 British & Irish Lions duty remains to be seen - Byrne in his own words says that "first of all I think I need to get back into that Wales side" - but while one Kiwi is seemingly holding Byrne at arm's length, Cotter, in contrast, is happy to put his trust in the fullback and Clermont seems to be reaping the rewards.
"The pair are exactly the same, Vern reminds me so much of Gats - he's a hard-nosed Kiwi. He knows how to get the best out of players, he's a great motivator and a great coach. He's a really nice guy off the field but you wouldn't want to cross him. He's 6'4", an ex-rugby player and built like a giant but he's been fantastic to me and a bit like Gats back in 2007-08, you look back at coaches like that and you are very thankful."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.