26 March 1993
Kilkennys Ned Byrne bursts out of defence against Wexford.
A fine Kilkenny ambassador on the sporting fields of Ireland and beyond
As All-Ireland medalists go, Ned Byrne can fairly be said to have wider experience than most. His horizons have been more far-flung - Cardiff Arms Park as well as Croke Park, the great rugby grounds of Australia and South Africa on top of the gaelic games venues of this country.
So when such a man, unique in that he remains the only person to be capped for Ireland in the oval ball code after winning a Celtic cross on the field of play, compares and contrasts the sports, you listen to him. And when he says that theres “absolutely no comparison” between rugby and hurling, that the latter is the greatest game in the world and that hed much prefer watching a good hurling match to watching a good rugby encounter, you realise the extent of the compliment to the art of the ash.
For Ned Byrne, Kilkenny city drinks businessman and McCarthy Cup winner with the Black and Amber in 1972, holds six international caps at tight head prop, would hold more indeed, but for a hit and run accident in Australia that left his leg broken, kept him out of rugby for three years and put paid to his career in the green jersey.
So how did a man who was, as he says, “bred into hurling”, ever begin playing rugby in the first place anyway? “I went to secondary school with the Cistercians in Roscrea - Dick Spring, the Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, was a couple of years behind me - and that was where it started. I was playing hurling at the same time there. In fact, Id been a hurler since primary school in Kilkenny CBS. This led to the situation where I was captain of the Roscrea rugby team when I was in fifth year and also a member of the hurling team that was competing in the Leinster Championship. But the colleges GAA authorities got to hear about this and I was banned! This was the early 1960s, when the ban was still in force, of course. So I couldnt play any school hurling that year. The following year I wanted to be on the hurling team rather than the rugby team, with the result I played no rugby in my final year at Roscrea.”
When not away at boarding school, Ned was a member of the St. Canices club in Kilkenny city. The team did the county minor hurling and football double in 1964, Ned going on to hurl on the unsuccessful Kilkenny minor side of that year. Some time later, St. Canices broke up and a number of members, Byrne among them, moved across the town to join James Stephens. It proved to be a happy decision. He was barely there when he won a Kilkenny senior hurling medal, appearing in the number 13 shirt on the combination which defeated Fenians of Johnston in the 1969 decider. Further All Stars Fan Larkin and Mick Crotty, plus current Waterford boss Georgie Leahy were team mates.
Making the Kilkenny senior outfit was the next step. A few runs followed in the National Hurling League during the spring of 1971; a championship place for the next two seasons was nailed down. To say Ned emerged as a hurler of genuine star quality would be wrong. Mind you, with legends like Eddie Keher, Kieran Purcell and Pat Delaney elsewhere in the forward line, making a lasting impression was hardly an easy task! But two Leinster medals and one All-Ireland souvenir were no bad return for his efforts, made probably all the sweeter by helping beat Cork in 1972 after losing to Tipperary the previous year. “Curiously enough, while the 1972 victory is still remembered very fondly around the county because of the way Kilkenny came from eight points down to win by seven, for me 1971 was more of a highlight. An All-Ireland final is an unique, emotional experience and though Tipp beat us by three points, I think your first All-Ireland is always the bigger landmark. After being taken off in 1972, I felt I hadnt a huge future on the county team. I had an idea they were thinking of dropping me. In fairness, I wouldnt have had any major regrets as I had achieved what I could.”
Neds cousin, Willie Duggan, has begun his rugby career with Blackrock in Dublin the same year. Some of the players there reckoned it would be a feather in the clubs cap if Ned were to join too. Having played with Wanderers a few years back, he was not entirely unknown in rugby circles in the capital. “Id been turning out for the Kilkenny rugby team in the late 1960s. Though the ban was still on the books, it was under so much pressure at the time that nothing was every said about me. So I began with Blackrock the Sunday after the 72 final, and after a while started to make the Leinster team for representative matches.”
The byrne hurling career was not totally neglected at this time. He still pulled on the red and green of James Stephens each summer and won another county medal in 1975. Now came a real crunch - would he train the winter with an eye to a possible All-Ireland club championship or would he concentrate wholly on rugby? He opted for the latter - and missed out on the greatest day in James Stephens history, their defeat of mighty Blackrock in the club decider in Thurles in 1976.
He hadnt long to wait for compensation, however. His debut for Ireland came at Murrayfield in the Five Nations Championship in 1977. He garnered five more caps in the front row, but unfortunately, never finished on a winning team. The one time they did emerge triumphant, against the Scots in Dublin twelve months later, Ned Byrne had injured ligaments and was replaced by Mick Fitzgerald!
He returned as first choice tight head prop to accompany Duggan, Slattery, Phil Orr, Moss Keane et al on the Irish tour to Australia in 1979. The tour remains famous for Ollie Campbell taking over Tony Wards out half spot. Ned Byrne remembers it for quite a different reason: the group were coming back from a race meeting one night when, standing on a path waiting to cross the road, he was hit by a car which didnt stop His leg was broken in three places and he wasnt able to play rugby again until early 1982 - nearly three years.
Ironically, his return to competitive action came on the hurling field in the for of a summer campaign with the James Stephens special junior team. The following year, 1983, he assisted Blackrock win the Leinster Senior Cup and League, being nominated Sportstar of the Week in the Irish Independent one week. More recently, hes trained the James Stephens senior side. But not this year ... after more than two decades of non-stop sporting activity, hes taking a complete break!
Which should leave him with plenty of time to catch up on spectating activities. And perhaps, see Kilkenny retain their All-Ireland title. Does he reckon they can do it? “Well, I wouldnt be putting big money on it, but things are going nicely. For the last few years they were very unsettled. Beating Cork has changed all that. Theres more confidence now, more of a shape to the team. Theyll definitely be there or thereabouts in the coming years.” Not that everyone in the Byrne drinks firm wold agree with that. One of the salesmen is a certain John Leahy of Mullinahone and Tipperary fame. The banter, Ned laughs, is always hectic.
On a more serious note, hes been pleased to see the GAA tighten up its act as regards efficiency and high standards. “When I was with Blackrock, the difference between rugby and GAA in that regard never failed to amaze me. Slipshod standards were much more acceptable in gaelic games, whereas with rugby everyone knew where e had to be and what his job entailed. Thankfully, theres been an improvement in the past few years. Matches start on time, players are properly togged out, and so on.
“The major task for the GAA lies in the job of selling hurling and football properly. My generation played hurling because there was hardly any television and no other sports. Now it seems to be left to your sense of patriotism to do so. Take the situation here in Kilkenny. We have Kilkenny city in the League of Ireland, the rugby club with any number of teams as well as a sound underage structure, and St. Kierans emerging as the schools soccer champions of Leinster. Yet a city of up to 20,000 people has only two senior hurling sides. And look at the big rugby schools in Dublin - Terenure, Blackrock, Castleknock and so on. Gaelic games are practically non existent there. But when my father won a provincial hurling championship with Kilkenny CBS in the 1930s, one of the teams they beat was Blackrock.
“For years, the GAA has been content to be a rural organisation. Those days are over. There are so many young lads out there wholl play the sport thats been sold best to them. Thats the big challenge for the GAA.”
Taken from Hogan Stand magazine
26th March 1993