Prime time: Byrne hopes his fine French form helps him notch 50 caps for his country

IT IS a year since Lee Byrne won the last of his 46 caps for Wales, but the 32-year-old full-back hasn’t given up hope of hitting his half century this season. Currently playing some of the best rugby of his career, Byrne has helped Clermont to pole position in the Top 14 and reminded the Welsh selectors that there’s still life left in the boy from Bridgend. “I certainly hope I’ll play for Wales again,” replies Byrne, whose last appearance was against Fiji in the 2011 World Cup. “I’d love to get to 50 caps but it’s whether the coaches see me and think I can do the job. I’ve been playing well so far this season and I hope I can carry that on into the Heineken Cup.”

Clermont kick-off their European campaign by hosting the Scarlets on October 13th and a week later travel to England to take on Exeter Chiefs. Then in December it’s back to back matches against reigning champions Leinster. That’s a series of matches to test the mettle of anyone, and Byrne can’t wait for the Heineken Cup to begin. “We’ve started talking about the Heineken Cup in the last couple of weeks,” explains Byrne. “We’ve got to be one of the toughest groups, but if we can win our home games and then pinch a couple of games on the road…”

Byrne reads nothing into Leinster’s stuttering start in the Rabo12. “They always come good in the Heineken Cup,” he says of the team that has won the title in three of the last four seasons. Exeter, too, he rates highly, and as for the Scarlets, currently second in the Rabo12, Byrne is relishing the prospect of welcoming them to the Stade Marcel Michelin. “Mark Jones and Simon Easterby have done a great job with the Scarlets and I’m looking forward to testing myself against them,” he says. “I’ve watched them this season and they have such a great backline. It’s a really exciting challenge.”

Byrne at the 2011 RWC

That Scarlets backline boasts some of the sharpest young talent in Wales – George North, Jonathan Davies and Simon Williams to name just three – but Clermont aren’t short of the odd star. On the wings they have Sivivatu Sitiveni and Napolioni Nalaga, and in the centre this season Wesley Fofana has formed an impressive partnership with former All Black Benson Stanley. Like the rest of us, Byrne has been astonished by the emergence of the 24-year-old Fofana in the past 12 months. “He has unbelievable pace and power,” explains Byrne. “He seems to glide when he runs but then he breaks tackles. His defence is excellent and in my opinion he’s not far from being the complete player. He’s going to be a big star for France for a long time to come.”

Byrne’s own game is in pretty good nick right now after a couple of seasons where he struggled with injuries. “I’m happy with the ways things are going,” he says. “Moving to France has brought a hard edge to my game and we have a great coach in Vern Cotter. He’s given me a lot of confidence in my ability.”

Most of the good people of Clermont Auvergne are nuts about rugby. Every home game is a sellout and the cafes and bistros of this central French town hum each day with rugby talk. Nonetheless Byrne says living in Clermont has given him more freedom than he had when he played for the Ospreys. “It is a bit more relaxed here,” he says. “Wales is so small that at times it does feel like you’re in a goldfish bowl. But of course the other side of that is that in France my rugby doesn’t get the exposure that it would if I was in Wales.”

Byrne will have all the exposure he needs in the Heineken Cup and perhaps a string of good displays will give him the chance to reach that half-century of caps. And who knows, maybe Byrne will be wearing another red jersey when the Lions tour Australia next summer.

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