Leo Cullen praised Ross Byrne’s contribution off the bench in Leinster’s Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final win at Exeter Chiefs on Saturday as he steered the four-time champions into Sunday’s last-four draw.
Byrne had replaced captain Johnny Sexton at fly-half after 27 minutes when the veteran playmaker was forced off for a Head Injury Assessment and the stand-in did not miss a beat, immediately kicking a conversion and then slotting five penalties as Leinster came from 14-0 down inside 10 minutes to win 34-22.
Head coach Cullen reported that Sexton was okay and would go through the mandatory return to play protocols and then said of his replacement : "I thought it was a great credit to Ross when he comes in and is so composed the whole time, nailed his kicks, and steered us around the field.
“We're lucky with the two of them, because they're great generals for the group. They have dovetailed pretty well over the course of the week as well. Obviously, it's tough for Johnny coming off the way he did but I thought Ross was excellent."
Cullen added: “He's been outstanding for us and we're really lucky with the age profile of the guys as well, with Harry (Byrne) putting on pressure from behind so they're all equally important but I thought Ross was great the way he comes on and Lukey (McGrath) has been going really well for us at nine, so the leadership of those guys is growing all the time.
“I think internally we know there's lot of tight calls across all the board but I think how everyone goes about their business on a week to week basis, focus on the next thing they can control - I think that's an important piece for our guys.”
Cullen was also delighted by his team’s response to going 14-0 down as last season’s European champions started brilliantly, exploiting defensive errors that allowed Chiefs wing Tom Flaherty to score two converted tries inside the opening 10 minutes. A try from James Lowe on 17 minutes, converted by Sexton, and two from Jordan Larmour either side of half-time as well as Byrne’s penalties saw the four-time champions home.
"We're really pleased because it was a very shaky start which reminded us of the last quarter-final of this competition that we played in (last September’s defeat to Saracens) where we also had a very shaky start.
"But I thought the prep during the week was good from the players. They knew the enormity of the challenge. The players showed really good composure and I thought the bench added through the course of the game as well.
"We'll sit back and enjoy the games tomorrow and see who we face next, which is great."
Leinster will go into Sunday night's semi-final draw alongside three French clubs, Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle having swept aside Sale Sharks earlier on Saturday while Sunday’s quarters will see Racing 92 go to Bordeaux-Begles followed by Clermont’s clash with Toulouse.