Ireland debut beckons for tenacious Tadhg Beirne
Scarlets forward will be a targeted man in semi-final against Leinster, says Dan Leavy
Scarlets forward Tadhg Beirne makes his way to the field prior to the Pro14 match against Leinster at the RDS Arena in Dublin in February 2018. Photograph: Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Any player who retains hope of wearing the green jersey while contracted to British or French clubs should pay closer attention to Tadhg Beirne’s two seasons in Llanelli. Better still, narrow focus to the last days of the Pro12; see Beirne’s back-reddening turnover to end Leinster’s season followed by the sensational body-spinning try to sink Munster.
Herculean acts that converted most people, Joe Schmidt didn’t even blink.
“Tadhg’s played around 1,350 minutes already this season,” noted Schmidt in January, “our players don’t usually play that much”.
The Ireland coach is interested, inviting Beirne to Carton House to absorb the environment, but the exclusion of Simon Zebo drew a clear line in the sand. “Our players” means they must be fully committed to the strict time control of Professor Schmidt.
It makes no difference that Beirne’s performances against Toulon revealed a world-class flanker/lock who slipped through the Irish system. He is a constant reminder that this can and will happen.
Nor is Beirne some outlier who rose from obscurity. The pedigree has always been on view, perhaps hidden in plain sight by the calibre of teams he played on.
There was Clongowes Wood College in 2010, a gang to rank alongside any produced by the Jesuit rugby nursery, obliterating a St Michael’s College side containing Luke McGrath and the 15-year-old Dan Leavy in the Leinster schools final. He could easily have been passed over from a pack that included teenage stars in Conor Gilsenan, Jordan Coghlan and Ed Byrne.
None of them are playing in the Champions Cup this weekend. The ability of both Byrne twins is increasingly obvious but Jack McGrath and Cian Healy are not for budging. Gilsenan has been at London Irish, via Connacht, since 2014. Schmidt’s plan to transform Coghlan from flanker to centre never materialised. After a season with Munster, he’s currently at Nottingham.
Before Mike Ruddock’s Ireland under-20s took the field in 2012, it looked like Gilsenan, Byrne and Coghlan (in that order) were stronger bets to be nominated for European player of the year at some point in their careers.
One of the best crops of under-20s, only losing to England in the Six Nations and beating the junior Springboks at the World Cup in South Africa, when Beirne partnered Iain Henderson in the secondrow, 12 others – Chris Farrell, Rory Scannell, JJ Hanrahan, Paddy Jackson, Luke McGrath, Kieran Marmion, Adam Byrne, Stuart Olding, Tadhg Furlong, Jack O’Donoghue, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan – have since been capped.
Again, Beirne could have been missed in such company but Ruddock doubled as his club coach.
“I first saw Tadhg play Lansdowne under-20s; he was always very athletic and skilful for a big man, very good over the ball even then. After the Ireland 20s, with my Lansdowne hat on, I wanted him to develop as a lineout leader. He was laid back, a free spirit and while that helped his game in a lot of other areas, it minimised a coach’s ability to select him as the lineout captain. I kept trying to promote that with him but we only had him on a Thursday night.”
Beirne’s improved lineout calling was evident when Leinster A captured the British and Irish Cup title.
“It used to be a straight-out brawl between me and Tadhg and all the senior players,” Leavy smiled this week. “We were trying to prove ourselves and they were trying to keep us down in the academy for as long as possible.”
People also remember one game-changing turnover for Lansdowne against Clontarf, an act that is now expected in every game, when he had just started wearing the bright blue scrum cap which constantly bobbed above the Castle Avenue surface. Such AIL performances are why Ruddock struggles to understand how he slipped through the Leinster net.
“My feeling is that Leinster had so many good players that sometimes he might not have given the impression that he was as hungry as he should be. But that’s not true. There was always a steely determination about Tadhg. He just didn’t get a chance to show what he could do in a Leinster jersey.”
There are numerous reasons. The provinces put extended time into homegrown, hand-picked talent but injury can force their hand. Ulster failed to recognise the long-term value of Farrell and Sam Arnold, while Leinster choose to sign Ian Nagle, who didn’t make it in Munster, when releasing Beirne.
“I had a pretty stressful time in Leinster,” said the Kildare man last season. “My first year in the academy went really well and things were looking really good. Then I picked up that adductor injury and it took me a long time to recover from it. In that period, a lot of people passed me out. I came back with six months of my last year in the academy left. I hurt my shoulder then and I was trying to get through the remainder of the season with one shoulder.”
The ultimate catch-22 situation became his reality: can’t move on because no club had seen him play, can’t stay because he hadn’t proved his worth.
“I didn’t get opportunities with the senior team because of my injuries and coming up to the end of my academy [contract], I didn’t have any offers from anywhere. I had a chat with Leo and said, ‘I’m in a pretty good place, my shoulder is fixed. Is there any way you can keep me on?’”
Cullen gave him a two-month contract.
“With the environment in Leinster, you learn a lot and become a better person and a better player. I have no regrets in staying there but, in hindsight, I could have left earlier. But I wasn’t getting game time so I didn’t really have much footage to leave earlier.”
Beirne took to delivering pizzas, as Gordon D’Arcy wrote this week, to keep his rugby career on life support.
“You definitely need the bit of luck too and it didn’t really fall for him here,” said Leavy. “Ultimately, the cream rises to the top and he’s done fantastically well at Scarlets. I’d say Munster are delighted to have him for next season.
“We’re going to have to really target him this weekend and not let him make a mess of our ball, as he does every other team.”
This Leavy versus Beirne duel could decide the contest because quick ball is how both teams devour points.
The 26-year-old will be a significant loss to the Scarlets but they do feel blessed to have discovered him. Cullen kept Beirne on the Leinster books during the 2015 World Cup, which gave him a chance to enhance his highlights reel, but it seems like one conversation in particular got him the opportunity.
“I remember getting a call off Wayne Pivac, ” said Ruddock. “‘You coach him in a Lansdowne jersey? Is he worth taking a punt on him?’
“I said, ‘I’ll tell you about him as a player but the first thing you should do is sign him straight away,’” Ruddock said. “There are plenty of good players in the AIL. Sometimes they just need a chance.”
The Ireland debut is all but promised against the Wallabies in June with Beirne’s formal arrival expected to send a ripple of healthy panic through the Irish pack because an established blindside or lock must be removed.
“It’s just a little bit complicated,” added Schmidt on this turnover machine, “but that complication will cease at the end of the season and that may be an opportunity”.
Beirne, it’s finally agreed by all, is that good.