THE SCARLETS’ WIN over Toulon last month may have gone slightly under the radar on these shores, but anyone who was watching would have noticed an outstanding performance from the Irishman in the Welsh side’s second row.
A week after impressing at blindside flanker in the away game against the French powerhouse, Tadhg Beirne was superb in a thrilling 22-21 victory for the Scarlets.
Now back from a short stint on the sidelines due to concussion, the 25-year-old returns to the second row for the Scarlets’ Champions Cup clash with Saracens today [KO 1pm, Sky Sports 2].
Loving his new lease of life in Llanelli, former Leinster man Beirne will be competing against Maro Itoje and Jim Hamilton at Parc y Scarlets. Judging by his recent form, the Kildare native will be more than up to the task.
Let’s go back to that win over three-time European champions Toulon for evidence.
Just over five minutes in and Beirne forces his first turnover of the game, standing off Aaron Shingler’s tackle on the lumbering Romain Taofifenua, hoping to pounce over the ball.
We can see above that Toulon blindside Charles Ollivon is on scene to engage the blue-scrum-cap-wearing Beirne over the tackle, but the Irishman is determined.
Beirne counter rucks and forces his right foot through onto the ball, causing it to rebound off Mamuka Gorgodze and out into the awaiting Scarlets hands.
30 minutes into the first half, Beirne pounces for turnover two. This one comes in a more traditional manner, showing another element of his skillset.
Beirne allows loosehead prop Rob Evans to go in low on ball carrier Ollivon this time, assisting by initially wrapping high, but then swiftly showing a clear release as he senses the opportunity.
Immediately, his focus transfers to the ball, with Beirne leaning his bodyweight in towards the oncoming Toulon clearout. Juandre Kruger goes for the croc roll, wrestling with Beirne, but the Scarlets lock dextrously drops the ball one-handed back to his team-mates.
There’s more. Eight minutes into the second half, Beirne picks off Toulon possession for a third time.
Again, we can see the well-honed timing from Beirne after captain Ken Owens chops in low on opposite number Guilhem Guirado.
Beirne snaps into a wide and solid base, kneels briefly on Guirado and gets directly onto the ball. Even with Kruger and Marcel van der Merwe within ruck striking distance, Beirne is too quick and comes out of the contest with the ball.
Already, we’re beginning to understand why Mike Ruddock felt Beirne could make a good fist of playing in the back row during his Lansdowne FC days.
Beirne’s starts so far at Scarlets since joining last summer have been split between the second row and the blindside flank.
“When I was at Lansdowne, Mike Ruddock liked me at six,” says Beirne. “He liked the way I played there and when I was going to go to Scarlets, Wayne [Pivac, the head coach] or someone gave Mike a call to chat about me as a player.
“Mike told them that he preferred playing me at six, so once I came over here they were happy to play me both at six and in the row. I’m happy as long as I’m on the pitch. I’m a little bit more comfortable in the row because I grew up playing mainly there, but I’m more and more comfortable at six the more I play there.”
Beirne is a multi-skilled player and we can look to that win over Toulon for examples.
An excellent read and steal on the Toulon throw above, with Beirne drawing a penalty as his arm is grabbed in the air.
He is not afraid of the required work around the attacking breakdown either, as we see below.
Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe clamps over the ball and a Toulon turnover looks almost certain, but Beirne reacts intelligently.
Aware that he’s not going to be able to dip in underneath the Toulon back row in time to prevent the steal, Beirne opts for the croc roll, wrapping around Fernández Lobbe’s torso and dynamically grappling him over and off the ball.
Beirne can play a bit too.
In the away clash with Toulon, he had several good carries and one deft offload close to the opposition tryline, while back at Parc y Scarlets we saw more of his passing game.
It’s a relatively simple catch and pass in the instance above, although Beirne has to check slightly to take Hadleigh Parkes’ pass. The execution of a straightforward skill allows fullback Liam Williams to threaten the Toulon defence.
Handling skills are a basic requirement for every player in the game these days, and Beirne is moving in the right direction.
Above, it’s another simple pass from Beirne, but this kind of linking play to backs in the second wave of the attack is fast becoming an important part in the duties of most second rows.
Beirne’s accurate pass allows Rhys Patchell to cleverly use the injured player as a shield and break the Toulon line, passing inside to DTH van der Merwe. The Scarlets should score but knock-on over the tryline instead.
With 13 appearances for the Welsh side in all competitions so far this season, including five starts in the Pro12 and Champions Cup, Beirne has been steadily winning over the Scarlets’ supporters. In truth, he probably never expected to be playing for a Welsh side.
As a schoolboy, Beirne certainly looked destined for a career in professional rugby but his time with Leinster was stunted and almost ended by injury.
Hailing from Eadestown in Kildare, Beirne’s initial foray into rugby came with Naas RFC when he was in fifth class in primary school. “I didn’t enjoy it at all,” says Beirne with a laugh. “I was a bit of a soccer head and football head, so I wasn’t enjoying it.”
He quit after four months and didn’t play again until going to boarding school at Clongowes for his secondary education. With the oval ball game compulsory in first year, Beirne was part of the B team but gradually bought into the sport as he realised how big the Junior and Senior Cups were in the school.
By the time he reached sixth year, Beirne was an outstanding second row in a Clongowes team that also included Conor Gilsenan, Jordan Coghlan, Ed Byrne, Ian Prendiville and Stephen MacAuley.
That Clongowes side won the schools’ first Leinster Schools Cup in 10 years under Noel Murray, beating a St. Michael’s team that featured Dan Leavy, Cathal Marsh and Luke McGrath in the final.
“Mentally, it started to set you up for what was to come, especially going into the Leinster set-up,” says Beirne of playing at the Kildare school.
“In Clongowes, you’re boarding, so some mornings we were up at 6am to go to the gym before class, then we’d train and then after study at 8pm we’d go and do lineouts again.
“Three sessions a day some days. You wouldn’t even do that with a professional set-up sometimes. From that perspective, it definitely sets you up because you get used to the intensity of training and what’s expected of you.”
Beirne was in demand for his first year out of school, but Declan Fassbender convinced him that Lansdowne was the ideal place to further his rugby career amid interest from Clontarf and UCD.
“It’s probably one of the best decisions I’ve made in terms of my progression, because I went there and started with the U20s,” says Beirne. “We had a really good 20s team, with Craig Ronaldson, Matt Healy, Marty Moore, Charlie Butterworth, all those boys.
“Mike Ruddock came into the senior set-up and that helped me towards getting into the Irish U20s set-up, because he brought me into the Lansdowne senior squad and saw me play there.”
Beirne was mainly used off the bench by Ruddock’s Ireland U20s in the 2012 Six Nations, although he started the win over Italy. By the time the Junior World Championship rolled around in South Africa in June, Beirne was a starter in the second row.
He played a crucial role as Ruddock’s talented squad recorded an upset over the Baby Boks in their opener, before beating England and France to finish fifth overall.
Alongside Beirne in that Irish group were the likes of Tadhg Furlong, JJ Hanrahan, Niall Scannell, Iain Henderson, Stuart Olding, Chris Farrell, Jack Conan, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, Luke McGrath and Kieran Marmion. A decent crop.
“It was great just to be involved,” says Beirne in a rather humble manner. “For the Six Nations, I was on the bench for the most part and we got all the way to a Grand Slam game against England, but they beat us there.
“We beat South Africa and went on to beat England third time lucky in the World Cup. The preparation and the whole thing of going away with the team, how that all works, was pretty cool to be involved with. You see the majority of those players have gone on to have pretty good careers.”
Beirne terms his three years with the Leinster academy as “a little bit frustrating, to be fair.”
Year one was good, as he started in and called lineouts for the A team in a British and Irish Cup-winning season.
Then disaster at the beginning of year two, with severe adductor and shoulder injuries ruling him out for almost 14 months and eating into his third and final year in the academy.
“I came back with six months of my last year in the academy left,” recalls Beirne. “I hurt my shoulder then and I was trying to get through the remainder of the season with one shoulder.
“I didn’t get opportunities with the senior team because of my injuries and coming up to the end of my academy, I didn’t have any offers from anywhere.”
A dead end loomed and Beirne considered packing it all in to focus on securing a Master’s degree. But before calling it quits for the second time in his rugby journey, the 6’6″ lock asked Leinster head coach Leo Cullen for a final chance.
“I had a chat with Leo and I said, ‘I’m in a pretty good place, my shoulder is fixed. Is there any way you can keep me on?’ He gave me a two-month trial during the summer.”
Beirne opted against holidaying with his friends in the off-season in June 2015, instead spending the month adding mass to his frame and he returned for Leinster’s pre-season in excellent condition.
With Mike McCarthy then called up to Ireland’s World Cup squad and Kane Douglas having packed his bags to return home to Australia, opportunities opened up for Beirne.
Beirne made only four replacements appearances in the Pro12 in that final season with Leinster, but it was enough to get noticed elsewhere.
“Come January , I was chatting with Leinster and Leo and they weren’t sure if they were going to keep me or not because I think they were in talks with Ian Nagle at that time,” says Beirne.
His agent had a look around and the Scarlets registered their interest.
“I thought it was the best move for me,” says Beirne. “Getting out of the Leinster set-up was probably the best thing for me because you kinda get a little bit comfortable and even though I wasn’t playing, everyone almost has an opinion of you.
“With a fresh start, you get to impress everyone on a new leaf. I thought it was the best option for me; get some game time and have a proper career in rugby.”
Beirne signed a one-year deal with the option of a second year with the Scarlets and it already looks certain that he will be fulfilling that second season, as he shows signs of building a strong second row partnership with Jake Ball, all the while covering blindside.
Beirne says there is real belief within the Scarlets set-up that they can challenge for the Pro12 title this season, although the defined target is shifting into the top four from their current fifth position. If they can achieve that, two games would separate them from a trophy.
Two wins from four games in the Champions Cup has been a decent return, with today’s clash with Saracens presenting Wayne Pivac’s men with another chance to stress their growth as a team.
If Beirne continues to impress, the Irish provinces may show interest in a year’s time, but Beirne is still in the early days of his exile and certainly isn’t pining for a move back home.
“Right now, my goal is just to nail down a starting position. Every week I’m wondering if I’ll start or be on the bench, or be involved. If I can nail down that starting position and go from there, rugby will be a lot more enjoyable for me.
“From there, I can start deciding what I want to do. Back home, there’s massive competition in second row and at six all over the country, so it would be a big call going back there.
“Especially because I still haven’t fully made a name for myself in the second row. I’d almost be going back to square one there, so right now I’m really happy here and trying to develop myself as a player.”
This article was updated on 15 January to correct Tadhg Beirne’s age in the subheading from 24 to 25.
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