Tadhg Beirne is an exceptional talent, and he's also a great story, as his life could have taken such a different course but for two career-changing decisions.
First he and the Scarlets took a punt on each other, instead of which he’d probably have completed his studies in Real Estate Management and might now not even be playing rugby.
He then turned down a more remunerative offer from the Scarlets to join Munster, but for which he would probably have become a Welsh international through residency in time for the World Cup.
“They put in a generous offer and it was that with the opportunity to play in a World Cup or come back home. But I am Irish. I wanted to wear green. So that was the decision in the end.”
In both instances things could hardly have worked out any better.
“With the massive history here, you’re coming to a great club who certainly have high expectations of themselves and are quite hungry for trophies. Having come from a club where I won silverware and I was close to doing it again last year, I know I’ll be in the exact same situation here, with the opportunity to win some silverware, which is pretty exciting.”
He’s also fulfilled his ambition of playing for his country, as a replacement in their second and third Test wins over Australia, then making his first start against Italy in Chicago and his home debut against the USA.
With that came his first taste of Munster in Heineken Cup weeks, including a home tie in Thomond Park.
“I came from Scarlets and those weeks are special there as well but they don’t have the capacity that Thomond does, so to experience that was pretty cool, just the whole build-up to it. We do a team run the night before and we go for a meal afterwards as a team as well, and that made it more special, getting to experience the whole week.”
Although originally raised in Rathcoole and then Eadestown in Kildare, Beirne does have strong connections with Munster through his mother Brenda.
“She’s a Munster woman. She’s from Tipp so we would have spent our summers in Cahir, where she grew up. Her dad ran a riding school, and my godmother now runs that. So that side of the family were pretty pleased when I signed here.”
Both his mum and dad, Gerry, were guards based in Dublin, and there was no rugby in the Beirne bloodline.
“My dad would have been a big GAA head; football all his life. He didn’t play county, but would have played club and travelled up and down to Longford in his younger years with mum.”
Beirne’s first sporting passion was football, whereas with Naas at the age of 11, rugby was initially more of an acquired taste.
“It lasted two months. I absolutely hated it. I didn’t understand the rules. I think I slid tackled someone at one stage, and was warned that I’d get sent off if I did it again.”
All changed when he went to Clongowes, where he quickly became in awe of the Senior Cup team.
"I started off with the Es and the Fs," he recalls with a chuckle, "the lowest of the low. Eventually I worked my way up into the Junior Cup team. In fourth and fifth year I didn't get into the Senior Cup squad, but then in sixth year we had a good year."
Clongowes beat a St Michael's team featuring Dan Leavy, Luke McGrath and Cathal Marsh in the 2010 Leinster final by 38-20.
“They beat us 36-0 in the Junior Cup first round three years previously,” recalls Beirne, who agrees that Clongowes’ win in 2010 pushed him into the Leinster Under-19s.
I learned a lot there. It was a great experience and I've a lot to thank Lansdowne for
After two years in the Leinster sub academy, and three in the full academy, Beirne had one year (2015-16) on a development contract. But despite Ireland’s World Cup and Six Nations campaigns, Beirne was restricted to just four appearances off the bench which amounted to around 40 minutes in total.
Serious groin and hip issues had previously sidelined him for 14 months. Leinster can’t keep everybody, and deep down there’s probably relatively few who they regret letting go, but Beirne must be near the top of that list.
“I learned a lot there. It was a great experience and I’ve also a lot to thank Lansdowne for. They recruited me out of school and I was lucky to have Mike [Ruddock] as head coach.”
Helpfully too, Ruddock was also the Ireland Under-20 coach, while the AIL helped transform Beirne from a boy into a man.
“My first game was against either Shannon or Garryowen, and there was a minute’s silence beforehand. I was about 15 or 20 kilos lighter than I am now, and I remember looking across and just going ‘Jeez, these are big boys’, Just to become more comfortable playing against bigger men was huge.”
His fourth and final Leinster appearance, away to the Dragons, in January 2016 was also a tipping point.
"All the secondrows were injured except for me and Ross Molony, so I thought I'd get my first start, because Hayden Triggs had gotten an operation five weeks previously on his syndesmosis, but he started ahead of me."
Beirne came on in the 64th minute.
“I remember thinking after that game that they just didn’t trust me really in terms of playing.”
All the while, teammates from his Irish Under-20 days, such as Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier, Iain Henderson, JJ Hanrahan, Luke McGrath, Stuart Olding and Alan Cotter, whom Beirne had been picked ahead of, were all making it in the professional ranks.
“You’re looking at them and you’re happy for them, but you’re also thinking ‘I know I’m as good if not better’. It was frustrating, but it just comes with the territory of the game. You have to be fit at the right time, don’t you?”
His Real Estate management course had been largely funded by delivering pizzas, first from Ballsbridge, and then Stillorgan, for two years. He was also coaching in Blackrock.
“You don’t get much money when you’re in the academy or even on a development contract. Back then it [an academy contract] was 4K. And the pizzas didn’t pay great either,” he adds.
A UK-based agent, Abe Kerr, introduced himself after a game, returned to meet Beirne and suggested there would be no harm in looking around.
When Cullen confirmed they were releasing Beirne in March 2016, he told Kerr that ideally he’d like to stay in Ireland, and if the English Championship was the only offer, he’d do his Masters and call it quits.
But there was no interest from the other provinces and Beirne accepts they were well stocked, while his injury record made him a risk.
In the week of the Pro12 final between Leinster and Connacht at Murrayfield, Kerr came back to Beirne with an offer from the Scarlets. The move wavered somewhat when the Scarlets signed the South African lock Rynier Bernardo from the Ospreys. But, helped by Ruddock’s recommendation, they signed Beirne as well.
He was a key man in their Pro12 triumph with wins over Leinster, 27-15 at the RDS, and Munster by 46-22 at the Aviva. In two seasons he played 53 games, and was voted the Pro14 Players’ Player of the Year in season two. Their adventurous running game suited him, and his brilliance in the jackal role was a primary supply line in their transitioning from defence to attack.
“I can’t thank them enough for taking a punt on me, because no-one else was willing to do it,” he says in that laconic, self-deprecating way of his. “For the first few months it was a bit lonely but once I got to know people I really enjoyed it. Leaving was bitter sweet.”
The Irish coaching staff were soon struck by Beirne’s willingness to learn, although he was “very nervous” prior to his debut in Melbourne.
“For the first two weeks there it was so intense trying to learn all the moves, and getting used to the system and how everything works. Once I got my head around all of that I could start to enjoy it more. By the third Test I was a lot more comfortable and able to enjoy it more.”
In recounting his story, the one occasion Beirne betrays signs of emotion is when he recalls that Irish debut and returning to the pitch to meet his family – Gerry and Brenda, and his three sisters, Jennifer, Alannah and Caoimhe.
“I can’t remember the last time they were all there. Jennifer lives in Australia, where she works for Amazon. She’s the brains of the operation. But that was pretty cool and one I’ll treasure for sure.”
His mum was a Rose of Tralee and Alannah is a fashion model and reality TV personality.
“We’re continuously told we’re always in the limelight. If I’m being honest the most talented is my youngest sister, Caoimhe. She’s an incredible singer/songwriter, yet she says she doesn’t want to be famous.”
Caoimhe is 21 and finishing her degree in music and songwriting.
“She’s incredible. Any time we have an event at home, she’ll take to the piano and she’ll blow the room away.”
Within five minutes of his full debut in Chicago, Beirne scored his first Test try, and added another strong close-range finish five minutes into the second half, all of which was overshadowed by Jordan Larmour’s ensuing hat-trick.
“He’s a freak, isn’t he?” says Beirne with a laugh. “He’s a special player. But I couldn’t have asked for a better debut start, to score two tries and we get a win. And then in my home debut [against the USA] I touched down and we won again, so not a bad two games for me.”
With James Ryan, Devin Toner and Iain Henderson all established, Beirne didn't make the match-day squads for the wins over Argentina and New Zealand, although for the latter he was 24th man.
This is a tough Irish team to break into, but that’s how it should be.
“The boys who are there have proven themselves time and time again, so it’s hard to push yourself into that starting team for a huge Test, especially against New Zealand. It was like a World Cup final here in Ireland.”
Soon though, Beirne could become a serious addition to this Irish team. He’s comfortable on the ball, something he attributes to playing Gaelic up to U-16s level with Eadestown.
We're starting to play some good rugby and I'm getting to play for my country as well
“Gaelic gives you good hand-eye co-ordination. There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement in that area for sure, but I’m getting more and more comfortable.”
Calling the lineouts, where Toner excels, is something Beirne is adding to his game with Munster. The Scarlets afforded him more freedom to poach, but Beirne admits he needs to become more selective.
“In one Scarlets game I attempted something like 28 jackals and I only succeeded in one or two. So they were kind of like ‘you’ve got to be a bit smarter here’. My neck was falling off me the next day. That’s something I am getting better at, realising when it’s on and it’s not on.”
Under Andy Farrell, there's clearly an emphasis to improve his work in the collisions, which can be curtailed in the desire to poach.
Still, he won five turnovers last week for Munster, where he sees plenty of similarities with the Scarlets, not least the player-driven pride in the jersey.
“That made it a lot easier to fit in here. It had the same feel.”
He’s finally living his dream in Limerick, where he is still looking to buy, his girlfriend, Harriet, moved over from Wales a couple of months ago. He’s happy out.
“I’m enjoying my rugby here. We’re starting to play some good rugby and I’m getting to play for my country as well. What more can I ask?”
And having taken a more circuitous route makes him appreciate these days all the more.