Tadhg Beirne first among equals on the strength of Marseille

Beirne’s talent has been evident from his days with the Scarlets to his homecoming at Munster that enabled a Test match career

Tadhg Beirne did more to sink France’s “Blue Meanies” in Marseille, the hosts tone deaf to the requirements of winning, hitting so many bum notes in the face of Ireland’s physical intensity and the general quality of the challenge that Andy Farrell’s side mustered in the southern port city.

The tagline for the pre-match billing might have read, “two teams looking for a salve to begin the process of healing World Cup heartbreak against the unfamiliar backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea.” That sense of anticipation lasted little longer than Paul Willemse’s yellow/red card transgressions which put a very definite shape on a contest, already unfolding palpably in Ireland’s favour.

There were a number of questions that hovered over the build-up for both teams, how would France fare without Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack, Anthony Jelonch and Thibaud Flament – Emmanuel Meafou, also injured, has yet to make his French debut – while some of the dialogue around Ireland also alighted on absent colleagues, current and former.

In the circumstances, the focus was on who stepped forward and stepped up to the required performance pitch. None did so to greater effect than the 32-year-old Beirne. The Eadestown native was not just a facilitator in allowing his team-mates to flourish but a leader, someone who rattled through the “to-do” list with an inexhaustible energy.


It’s not a new phenomenon, Beirne’s talent – his contribution requires no practiced eye to understand his impact – has been evident from his days with the Scarlets to his homecoming at Munster that enabled a Test match career.

Short odds to succeed Peter O’Mahony as a permanent captain with the province, it doesn’t really matter what his oratory skills are like; in some respects, it’d be as simple as saying, “follow me”.

In the rush to eulogise those who contributed most handsomely to the win, others were thrust into the spotlight, the 22-year-old Joe McCarthy picked up the man-of-the-match trinket, a medal he later hung around the neck of his brother, Andrew, the young Irish secondrow a hulking powerhouse in green.

The contributions of Jack Crowley and Calvin Nash, like McCarthy starting a Six Nations game for the first time, were rightly celebrated, question marks replaced by ticks in notation terms. But when the euphoria had subsided and the discussion broadened to the forensics of the win, it was no longer possible to ignore Beirne’s input.

Nonpareil statistically, his name was emblazoned across several metrics into which individual contributions are broken down within a match. He ranked in the top five of eight categories that included both starting teams and replacements.

He was second behind French captain Gregory Alldritt in carries, Beirne racked up 12, third in metres made (72), the most by a forward, managed a game leading, two line-breaks, alongside Damian Penaud and Louis Bielle-Biarrey, and made seven passes, the most by a forward.

To drill a little further down to the hard-core base, he hit 19 attacking rucks (second) – Caelan Doris led the way with a staggering 31 – and 11 defensive rucks. He won five lineouts, stole two on the French throw and managed a trademark breakdown poach. Oh, and he scored a try, a thing of beauty.

It’s so much more than a numbers game though when evaluating his impact because timing and context are huge considerations. When France did manage to spasmodically threaten Beirne’s blue scrum cap was a marauding presence, the only respite, a brief intermission when they two became separated; although you half expected the scrum cap to tackle of its own volition.

Legacy issues from the World Cup included the lineout. Paul O’Connell and the forwards had worked hard to address the problems in the build-up, diligence that would have its reward in the Stade Vélodrome. Beirne called a flawless lineout, winning a baker’s dozen 13 throws without a single blemish, while also nicking two French throws and disfiguring a couple more.

He led by example, calling the first two on himself, the opening one inside the first minute, the second after 82 seconds. France had a plan to go after their opponents’ throw, that much was obvious in the first 20-minutes, but Ireland’s precision didn’t open an access point.

The breakdown can resemble a game of bluff and those who participate are invariably going to get caught out; it goes with the territory, but the best and shrewdest finish in the black in an overall context. Beirne finished honours even on the night, one penalty, one poach.

And then on 29-minutes the Kildare man demonstrated his footballing acumen to pick up on a cue from Crowley. The soft hands and timing of the pass complemented the angle chosen by Beirne leaving Frenchmen hooker Peato Mauvaka and centre Jonathan Danty to wish that they could have their time over again to make better decisions.

Once through the gap in the initial line of defence, Beirne was afforded the freedom of the Marseille pitch to enjoy the act of try-scoring, a rare moment of calm. He continued to have a direct influence on the game, in all its facets, lineout steals, link play, passing, clear-outs, carries, to whatever needed attending.

McCarthy and O’Mahony, another who proved something of a nemesis for the home side, departed, James Ryan and Ryan Baird arrived, a seamless transition. Catching sight of Iain Henderson in a bib on the sideline at one point during the match offered a reminder there is a depth of quality with Beirne first among equals on the strength of Marseille.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer