by the skin of his teeth: Byrnes made to earn sensational rise
It’s late February, 2018, and the Sandringham Dragons coaching staff is making the final cutthroat calls for spots on the 72-player list.
One name to weigh up is a largely-unknown midfielder, Ryan Byrnes.
The Cheltenham Panthers product had just undergone a gruelling pre-season to give himself a glimmer of hope after missing the Dragons' Under-16 program.
During one of the last training sessions of the pre-season, a group of boys were called in to find out they didn’t make the final squad.
Byrnes wasn’t one of them.
It was an “ecstatic” feeling and a moment that set the course for the now-star midfielder’s meteoric rise.
“I didn’t even make the Sandy Under-16 squad so my goal after that was to work really hard to get onto the Sandy bottom-age list because I felt I was coming from a little bit behind everyone else,” Byrnes said.
“That bottom-age preseason was huge, a lot of work away from training, a lot of running and gym work. It was my biggest preseason to date.
“I just scraped through in the end which was really important to me because I felt like if I could get onto the list and was able to play then I was confident in my ability to keep getting games and play good footy.”
Good fortune – albeit achieved through hard work – again fell his way in Round 5 last year when Liam Stocker pulled out late on Saturday morning to hand Byrnes an unlikely debut.
Then in Round 14 came his realisation moment. A 39-disposal best-on-ground performance against the Ranges in Box Hill proved he belonged.
“That Box Hill game for me, especially as a bottom-ager, was a huge realisation moment that I could exceed everyone else’s expectations and my own,” he said.
“It was definitely a turning point for me where I reckon I clued onto the fact that if I put the hard work in and really stuck at it that something could come out of this.”
Six months later and Byrnes was named captain of the 2019 side, having hardly missed a game since that fateful day at Trevor Barker Oval.
The explosive midfielder went on to average 26 disposals in the NAB League, represent Vic Metro in the National Championships, and lead St Bede’s College to their first Herald Sun Shield.
And it came from the will to work harder than the next player.
Byrnes was always one of the first out on the training track, whether it was to work on his ball skills or to get that little bit of extra fitness.
A prime example of this came on New Year’s morning, when good mate and fellow Dragon George Grey arrived for a kick with his mate Ryan, only to see him exhausting himself with some early morning laps of the oval.
Ask Ryan and it was a seven-or-eight km run. Ask George and it was more like three. Talk about sticking by your mates!
“It might not even have done that much for me physically, but mentally I like to have that little bit over everyone else as much as I can from that mental standpoint as well as a physical standpoint,” Byrnes said.
“It comes down to a bit of competitiveness but at the same time what’s got me this far in footy is my ability to work hard. I don’t think I’m as naturally talented physically as some of the other blokes but my hard work ethic is what’s got me here.”
And to the surprise of nobody, he won’t let his AFL dream slip if his name doesn’t get called out on draft night.
“I’m hopeful. It’s a dream I’ve had for ages. There’s no indication where or when (I might get picked up) so I’m just going to have my fingers crossed and we’ll see what happens,” he said.
“If I don’t (get picked up) I hope to be playing VFL and training at a VFL club next year and keep giving it a crack.”
Whatever happens, you know Byrnes has given it his all.