Ireland hooker Dan Sheehan believes the media have been “harsh” in their judgement of fly-half Ross Byrne as his Leinster team-mate prepares for a first start in the Guinness Six Nations.
Byrne is likely to begin Saturday’s match away to Italy after captain Johnny Sexton missed training on Tuesday due to a groin issue suffered in the round-two win over France.
All but two of his 16 Test caps to date have been won as a replacement and he spent 20 months in the international wilderness before an 11th-hour call-up led to him kicking the winning penalty in his country’s November victory over Australia.
Sheehan has regularly lined up alongside Byrne at club level and feels he has “everything in the locker” and deserves greater respect.
“Over the last few years I’ve probably played most of my rugby under Ross at 10,” said Sheehan, who has declared himself fit for the visit to Rome after a hamstring problem ruled him out against Les Bleus on February 11.
“I think probably the media were harsh on him over the last few years because what I saw inside the doors of Leinster and Ireland was someone who is calm and can make plays happen.
“Everyone I think is really comfortable with him on both teams.
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) February 21, 2023
“I think he has everything in the locker. His game control and his ability to see space and managing the pack around him – I think most good 10s have it and Ross definitely has it.
“I’ve always found it comfortable playing with Ross. I was glad to see him coming back into the squad.”
Byrne has dislodged Joey Carbery as primary understudy to Sexton since the autumn, with Munster’s Jack Crowley elevated to third choice.
Carbery was overlooked by head coach Andy Farrell at the start of the championship but joined the squad this week as extra back-up due to the doubt surrounding veteran Sexton.
Byrne questioned whether he would play again at Test level prior to his match-winning cameo against the Wallabies three months ago but dismissed the significance of perceived negativity from the press.
“Before I got the call in November, there were definitely times I thought I’d never get back in,” said the 27-year-old, who came off in the bench against Wales and France earlier this month.
“You just have to be patient, which isn’t always easy. And hopefully when you do get an opportunity you just have to make the most of it.
“When you’re not in the squad, you see the squad doing so well and you want to be a part of it.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 13, 2023
“Everyone wants to be part of a winning team, so it definitely gives you a little bit of edge that you strive to get back into the team.
“I can’t control what the media says. For me, it has just been looking after my own performances.
“I’m absolutely loving being back.”
Ireland shrugged off the absence of Sheehan to put themselves in pole position for the title with a 32-19 win over Fabien Galthie’s reigning Grand Slam champions.
The 24-year-old had never previously been unavailable due to injury during his career.
He is pushing to return at Stadio Olimpico, competing for the number two jersey with Ulster’s Rob Herring, who is undergoing assessment on a head knock, and fellow Leinster man Ronan Kelleher.
“My body is back to a hundred per cent, so ready to go for this weekend and an exciting challenge ahead,” said Sheehan.
“To miss a game of that standard is huge but to get back this quickly, I’m pretty happy with how I’ve dealt with it personally.”