back five

O'Connell marvels at modern locks Baird and Beirne

‘The place for a workhorse second row that hits rucks all day, I don’t know how long more there is in the game for him.’

‘IT’S NOT THAT long ago,’ Paul O’Connell volleys back. But there are second row forwards running around modern rugby pitches that make it seem as though his era feel a little longer ago than it should.

Ryan Baird is the latest and perhaps most frighteningly gifted of the new breed of lock, he has been clocked moving at 10 metres per second. A daunting rate of propulsion behind a 6’6″ 112kg specimen.

ryan-baird Tommy Dickson / INPHO Baird celebrates his debut in Rome. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Though the 21-year-old is emerging as a talent in an Ireland side yet to fully find their feet, he is in good company with the exceptionally mobile Tadhg Beirne competing with Iain Henderson and James Ryan.

“You look at some of our second rows and the athleticism they have, their ball carrying ability, their tackle ability, the speed that some of them can move at,” says O’Connell, noting that his old position is now being viewed as part of a ‘back five’ in the pack rather than the tight five.

“The second row position is becoming far more athletic. They are almost like tall No. 6s, some of them, and it is pretty impressive to watch. It’s amazing how some of them can carry the workload of running a line-out, running a defensive line-out, maul defence and attack as well and just switch into another job once the line-out is over.

“They are just becoming far more athletic than maybe they were back in my day.

The place for a workhorse second row that hits rucks all day, I don’t know how long more there is in the game for him because everyone now is expected to be able to carry. Everyone is expected to be able to operate in the wide channels a few times in a game. Everyone is expected to defensively work five or six guys out from the ruck.

“So, I think our second-rows are really impressive at a lot of that stuff.

“You look at the latest guy to come in, Ryan Baird, I suppose that’s the way second rows are going.”

If Baird is the future, Beirne is very much the man of the moment as he has been Ireland’s stand-out player in the Six Nations so far. The Kildare man, whose laid back attitude can take the new forwards coach aback at times, has had to wait for his turn to make an impression with Ireland.

A portion of that waiting period even included an outing as the then Ireland captain’s body double in a 2015 advert.

“I would have first really seen him in the Scarlets and I would have recognised him because he was an extra in a TV ad I was in,” jokes O’Connell.

“He has got great footwork, he is an excellent ball carrier, he is a very smart rugby player, he runs great lines. He may not run over people but he runs great lines which allows him to get through gaps.

“And obviously his ruck pressure was incredible. In the Scarlets, he seemed to spend the whole game searching for poaches, which they were very happy for him to do.

paul-oconnell-with-tadhg-beirne Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“He has probably had to tweak that a little bit in that he has to stay in the defensive line a little bit more, but he’s great at picking the right time and picking those opportunities to have a crack at the ruck.

“He is one of the best I have ever seen at it.”

“His maul defence is incredible as well, his ability to get through seams and gaps and joints and collapse mauls or get access to the ball is excellent.

“He is a very laid back character. He is funny, when you’re chatting to him, it’s hard to believe sometimes that he’s a professional rugby player. But he is very, very smart. He knows his stuff and he does his work.”

If Ireland are to continue to bounce back after successive defeats in this Six Nations Championship against what O’Connell reckons is the best Scotland team he has faced, the new breed of locks will be key.

Originally published at 06.13; updated at 17.04

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