If Wigan beat Huddersfield Giants in the Challenge Cup on Saturday, do not expect Liam Byrne to feature in many headlines. His try-scoring record of two in 56 appearances suggests he is unlikely to crash over for the winner. But if Wigan skipper Thomas Leuluai lifts the trophy at Tottenham, everyone in the camp will know Byrne has played his part.
The 22-year-old is one of Super League’s archetypal shift-workers: one of those no-nonsense water carrier players that every team needs. Byrne is the ox who ploughs the field, preparing it for players such as Cade Cust, Jai Field and Bevan French to create acts of beauty.
Rugby league’s greatest teams are full of unglamorous forwards who were not outstanding individuals but who did their job to perfection. Not many people focus on Mitch Achurch or Ian Kirke when reminiscing about the great Leeds teams, or Mike Bennett in St Helens’ epic 2006 side. Rod Doyle, loose forward for Sheffield in their 1998 Challenge Cup triumph, doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. It is perhaps no coincidence that Byrne first earned a contract in Shaun Wane’s bump and grind years. The current England coach was that low-profile prop in the Wigan side of superstars.
Byrne was a late developer by modern standards. Rather than come through a Super League scholarship system, he played junior rugby for Cadishead Rhinos in his home village on the south-west edge of the Manchester-Salford metropolis. He impressed on the North West Lionhearts’ tour to Serbia and Bosnia in 2016, and was selected for England Lionhearts – the amateur national team – coming to the notice of Wigan scouts, who invited him in on trial. In his first training session for Wigan Under-19s, Byrne broke his arm, missing his England opportunity.
“That was quite wounding,” Byrne admits. “I knew I’d been given a good smash and it was killing, but I didn’t want to pull out so I stuck it out. When I woke up the next morning it was agony. I got the bus to Salford Royal and they confirmed it was broken. I was gutted and rang Matty Peet to let him know. I was worried but he just said ‘get it right and still come into training every day’. So I went with my arm in a cast and did what I could.”
When Byrne told Peet he was about to start college in Salford, Peet asked him to join the club’s Education Academy instead. It meant getting up at 5.30am and taking three trains just to start each day. “I did that right through winter. It was a tough time – not fun or easy. I’m just grateful my Mum and dad supported me, giving me the train money to allow me to do it for five or six months.”
His commitment convinced Wane to offer Byrne a pro contract. “Maybe I benefitted being a late developer as I kept that hunger,” says Byrne. “I didn’t know the professional system and was naive about what it was like. Once I got involved I felt I had so much to give. Because I joined later, I’m constantly learning. I’ve grown a lot, from a boy to a man.”
Byrne has not been alone on that five-year journey to the top. After a stint away coaching at Sale Sharks, his first academy coach is now in charge of one of the biggest league clubs in the world. “It’s been really good to see Matty get this opportunity,” says Byrne. “So many of the young lads came through with him – we already knew what he wanted from us – but he’s also got the respect of all the players.”
After half a dozen games on loan at third division Swinton, Adrian Lam gave a teenage Byrne his chance in 2019. He was in and out of the side for two years before becoming a regular last season. A year ago, if he had been left out of the Wigan squad for a difficult match a fortnight before a cup final, Byrne could have been forgiven for worrying his place was in jeopardy. But such has been his progress under Peet that being rested for the recent league meeting with cup final opponents Huddersfield was a sign of how valued he now is, wrapped in cotton wool for the big day.
He had started only eight Super League games before this season compared to 40 appearances as a substitute, but Byrne is now considered a starting prop in Peet’s XIII. “I prefer starting. It took a while to get used to: it’s much faster, 100mph. It shows I’ve made progress but we’re just finding what works for us as a team. The role we’re asked to play is exactly the same whether we start or come on but, if the starting middles don’t get into it, it’s hard for the replacements to get into the swing of the game.” At 6ft 3in and 18 stones, Byrne now has the size to cope in the trenches of a Super League pack – “I can definitely feel the extra weight now when I go into collisions,” he says – but it is his persistence and fearlessness that gains most respect.
When Peet stepped up to become head coach, he was joined by retired Wigan stalwart Sean O’Loughlin and Super League legend Lee Briers, all overseen by the returning Wane. “It’s been great working with all three. Briersy is giving me small details all the time. They’re definitely improving my game,” says Byrne.
“The schedule has changed quite a bit this season and we’ve got a good rest/work balance. The massive change has been the community engagement. In pre-season we all spent one full day every week in the community: in schools, hospitals, wherever – strengthening that bond between the club and the community. There’s a really big focus on culture, having standards, being honest and a good group. If we all buy into that and we’re happy, we will cope better, whatever the results.”
This should be a career-changing year for Byrne. Although born in Salford, Byrne spent much of his holidays visiting the family of his Belfast-born father in Crumlin and Omagh. A raw teenager, he proudly made his Ireland debut in 2018 before his first appearance for Wigan – having played half a dozen games on loan at Workington and Leigh. He will be battling with fellow Wigan prop Brad Singleton and 10 other Super League forwards for a place in their World Cup starting line-up. Grouped with New Zealand, Lebanon and Jamaica, Ireland are serious quarter-final contenders.
But first he has his first major final. “I’m really excited. There will be some nerves, definitely. It will be the biggest crowd I’ve played in front of. It’s our first chance to win silverware. If we prepare right, we’ve got a good chance.”
Saturday will be Byrne’s first game in London since he made his Wigan debut, coming on as sub for a young Warriors side in a pre-season friendly defeat to London Skolars at the Honourable Artillery Club. Among his teammates that Friday afternoon were Harry Smith and Oliver Partington, who could also be in the Wigan side at Tottenham. The Wigan coach that day? Peet. They’ve all come a long way together.
World Cup watch: Brock Pelligra, Italy
Despite losing only one group game in each of the past two World Cups, Italy failed to make it to the quarter-finals of either tournament. Both times, injuries left them chronically short of elite half-backs. They may go into this year’s World Cup with another inexperienced pairing but at least the currently uncapped Cooper Johns is getting some NRL gametime in the halves for Melbourne Storm. He could be partnered for Italy by Brock Pelligra, who led Carcassonne to the French title on Sunday. Having gained revenge for last year’s final defeat by seeing off defending champions Lezignan in the semi-final, Les Canaries beat Limoux 20-16 in a heated contest in Narbonne. Pelligra – born in Sydney into a Sicilian family – has some way to go before becoming the most famous son of Ragusa, home to Inspector Montalbano, the eponymous hero of the cult BBC4 series.
One last thing
Rugby league’s debut at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday will mean Crystal Palace and Sutton United are the only two of London’s 13 league football clubs not to have hosted senior rugby league. However, the sport’s history on White Hart Lane goes back to when Hornsey Lambs turned out at New River Stadium in the late 1980s. For the last 25 years the ground has been home to London Skolars, who are currently struggling in League 1 after most of their best players followed coach Jermaine Coleman to London Broncos last winter. Skolars are rebooting under new management while playing a crucial role in introducing young Londoners to rugby league. Promotion-chasing Oldham are the visitors for their annual Friday Night Lights fixture on 27 May, followed by a huge primary schools festival on Saturday morning. Both are ideal feelgood ways to start the cup final weekend a couple of miles east along White Hart Lane.