Analysis: Beirne return adds another dimension to Ireland

Despite their second-row injury woes, it has never felt like Ireland are short of locks in this year’s Guinness Six Nations.

Despite their second-row injury woes, it has never felt like Ireland are short of locks in this year’s Guinness Six Nations.

Most teams couldn’t cope with losing players with the quality of Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne and then Devin Toner to boot.

But alongside the imperious James Ryan, Connacht’s Quinn Roux stepped up in the much-needed victory over Scotland last time out.

Ultan Dillane was also effective coming off the bench, giving Ireland six locks genuinely capable of starting at Test level. It’s a problem any coach would love to have.

However, as sterling a job as the likes of Roux and Dillane have done, Schmidt will be delighted to have one man in particular back for the trip to Rome this weekend.

Tadhg Beirne may have had an unconventional route to the top of the rugby tree but he offers a skillset unmatched by any of the other options in the engine room for Ireland and perhaps any engine room in world rugby.

A ferocious ball-carrier – happy to batter away at defences with his 6ft 6in, almost 18st frame – the 27-year-old from Kildare also has an ability to jackal and steal at the breakdown that is almost preternatural.

His understanding of the game allows him to read exactly where he needs to be and his physical gifts enable him to get there.

Win the turnover battle and you invariably win the game – making Beirne invaluable for club and country.

“I think Tadhg’s a special player,” commented Johann van Graan, Beirne’s head coach at Munster, last month.

“He’s had a few man-of-the-match performances for us this season. He’s very dynamic and he’s one of the only locks in world rugby who can poach the way he can.”

Of course another facet of an effective second row is to control the lineout and make the correct calls to put your team in a position to succeed.

“He’s worked so hard on his calling,” added van Graan. “When he arrived at Munster he wasn’t really a calling option, I threw him into the deep end but I think he’s developed into one of the best locks around.”

Some players seem destined for the top of the game – stars at school, age-group and academy level before graduating to the first team and representing their country soon after. But it’s not that way for everyone.

Beirne had to battle, coming up through the Leinster academy but never being able to advance beyond the A team.

He made just four first-team appearances for the Dublin-based side and in May 2016, he was released.

With no club lined up for the 2016-17 season, and no interest coming from the other three Irish provinces, Beirne considered retiring from rugby aged 24.

At the last minute, he was offered a contract to play for Scarlets, although as the man himself has previously admitted, it was a close-run thing.

“It was pretty tight,” said Beirne. “I love the game and I love the lifestyle. In my head I was saying, ‘I’m not ready to work 9 to 5 and go out into the real world. I love what I do too much. I want to play’.

“So I said I’d go over to Wales, play and give it one crack.”

That’s where things picked up for Beirne as he shone in Wales, helping Scarlets lift the Guinness PRO12 title in May 2017 – their first silverware since the 2003-04 campaign.

After one more impressive season at Parc y Scarlets, Beirne moved to Munster in the summer of 2018, with the express aim of representing his country.

“I wanted to go home and find out if I’m good enough to play for my country,” he added. “I think, ultimately, that’s what every player wants to achieve in their career.

“When Munster approached, I had quite a big decision to make but, ultimately, international ambitions are what I wanted to chase.”

It has already proved a fruitful decision. The lock made his Ireland debut against Australia last summer – playing in the back row – and then scored three tries in two Autumn International matches against Italy and USA.

A knee injury ruled him out of the first two rounds of this year’s Guinness Six Nations but now he’s back, he could make his Championship debut in Rome on Saturday.

With the skills of a back-rower and the physique of a lock, Beirne is a tough man to contain and could offer Schmidt a point of difference for the rest of the Championship.

And if he does shine over the next three rounds, you certainly couldn’t begrudge him his success after taking the road less travelled.