Beirne supremacy adds to potent Munster mix
Tadhg Beirne took a bit of convincing that Munster was the right option for him as he weighed up his future.
The Scarlets put a lucrative offer on the table and threw in the prospect of playing for Wales to boot, but the Kildare native couldn't resist the prospect of playing for Ireland and getting another bite at the Irish provincial cherry.
He has been arguably the signing of the season, slotting into the second-row at Thomond Park without much fuss and bringing a new dimension to the Reds' forward play.
Since his arrival, the starting Munster pack has looked a formidable unit with a back five that can match any put out against them.
They may not have the depth of other teams like Beirne's old club Leinster, but his partnership with Jean Kleyn and the superbly-balanced back-row of Peter O'Mahony, Chris Cloete and CJ Stander are as mean and dangerous as you can get on the circuit.
Munster's two European successes in 2006 and 2008 were based on a superb back five, with Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan ahead of Alan Quinlan, David Wallace and Anthony Foley, who made way for Denis Leamy in the second triumph.
O'Mahony may be the only home-grown player in the unit currently, but there is no lack of commitment from the men from Leinster and South Africa who carry the torch nowadays.
And the performances of Beirne suggest that he was the missing link; a ball-playing, lineout-calling breakdown threat who dominates big games despite his relatively recent arrival.
When Donnacha Ryan exited for Racing, Munster tried to get Beirne out of his Scarlets contract early but when that didn't happen they were prepared to wait for his signature.
Gerbrandt Grobler proved a controversial stop-gap and wasn't picked for the biggest games, meaning Kleyn was partnered by Billy Holland.
The Corkman has been an excellent servant and remains an important figure in the drive for silverware this season, but he doesn't bring the same range of skills to the table as the man who has taken the No 5 shirt from him this season.
While the fundamentals of Beirne's game are all sound, it is his ability over the ball that sets him apart.
He has won 11 turnovers in eight PRO14 appearances, while his nine turnovers in European competition put him alongside opensides Thomas Young and Francois Louw at the top of the charts.
Playing against Munster must be a nightmare if you want to keep the ball, because O'Mahony, Stander and No 7 Cloete - who is expected to return when the team to face Gloucester is named today - are all capable poachers in their own right.
But to have a second-row playing like an openside adds a whole new dimension that has proved key in big games so far this season.
"He obviously has an incredible body because the positions he gets himself into look incredibly awkward," O'Mahony said this week.
"I don't know how he stays in there at times, but he is very impressive, the manner in which he goes around here and gets his work done, even his gym stuff . . . very impressive. He keeps his head down.
"There is not really a system (at the breakdown), but you have to make good decisions, you can't have two or three guys going after a ruck, particularly against the quality of teams we are coming up against at the moment.
"When those two lads (Beirne and Cloete) are there, I don't have to do a huge amount to be honest with you, I just keep an eye on things because they are two of the best in the game to be fair."
It has taken Beirne some time to get to grips with the Munster lineout having arrived from a different system in Wales and even though Holland was on the pitch against Castres they struggled out of touch.
However, they produced a 100pc game in Galway on Saturday with Beirne at the helm and that allowed them to crank up their maul which proved a destructive weapon.
Against Grobler and Co in Kingsholm tomorrow, he'll need to be at his best in that department.
There is an additional carrot for Beirne in that Iain Henderson's injury has opened the door to a place in the match-day 23 in the Six Nations opener against England on February 2.
Devin Toner's recent issues even raises the prospect of a dynamic pairing between the Munsterman and James Ryan who would cause chaos in the loose.
That can wait. The next nine days will determine whether Munster can set up a tilt at a third title and in many ways define their season.
Beirne will be key to their efforts and has the capacity to make the difference in the knockouts too.
Meanwhile, Biarritz are interested in signing Munster back-row Dave O'Callaghan.
The 28-year old is out of contract at the end of the season and the French side, who are currently eighth in the PRO D2 table, are hoping to sign him.