Tuesday 22 January 2019

The two Irishmen standing in the way of an all-Irish European decider

Donnacha Ryan and Tadhg Beirne
Donnacha Ryan and Tadhg Beirne
Donnacha Ryan. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Whatever happens this weekend, there will be an Irish presence on both sides of the divide in Bilbao on May 12.

For Donnacha Ryan and Tadhg Beirne, the mission is to ensure that the national interest rests on their shoulders rather than on the so-called 'dream final' by downing their old teams.

Tadhg Beirne. Photo: Sportsfile
Tadhg Beirne. Photo: Sportsfile

Munster second-rows past and future, they are central to their teams' plans in the Champions Cup semi-finals in Dublin and Bordeaux next weekend.

Since arriving from Munster last summer, Ryan has added steel to a Racing 92 pack not short on size.

He is an 80-minute man whose determination, technical aptitude and focus helps gel the big names together and, despite missing the early rounds of the tournament to injury, is a major factor in their run to the last four.

Beirne, who will ultimately replace Ryan at Munster next season, is a different kettle of fish and will aim to be a serious thorn in Leinster's side.

A breakdown pest and clever ball-carrier, his dynamism is central to the way the Welsh region play. While Ryan's head is invariably stuck in a maul or a ruck, Beirne's blue scrum-cap pops up all over the place in open play.

Had the Scarlets been feeling generous, he might have even been playing for Munster this week but Wayne Pivac was unwilling to release a player he has described as "the best buy of my career" a year early.

That has stymied Beirne's international ambitions, but it would be no surprise to see him selected in the summer tour squad for Australia ahead of his move to Thomond Park in the coming months.

For Ryan, those days have passed.

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He knew that when he turned down the reduced Munster contract last spring to take on a fresh challenge at 33.

In the hours after Ireland's Grand Slam win, a picture emerged of the Tipperary native sitting alone in his full kit watching the events in Twickenham unfold on the giant screen at Racing's U-Arena. A penny for his thoughts.

Perhaps they helped fuel his fire two weeks later when he was at the forefront of the Parisians' wonderful win at Clermont that booked the semi-final place.

Ryan was photographed with a Nenagh Eire Óg sliotar in his hand as he entered the Stade Marcel Michelin, a connection to home with a practical use - the hard ridges of the ball are perfect to work out the sore, tight muscles before the warm-up.

Although he missed out on a return to Thomond Park through injury, he made up for it with a stirring performance when his old team-mates came to Racing's space-age new home in January.

His presence as part of the pre-game hype on the big screen was a sign that he'd bought into the glitzier side of the way they do things in the French capital, but once they got down to business he was the same old nuggety opponent and a real thorn in Munster's side.

"Donnacha is the kind of guy you want to have in your team," Peter O'Mahony said in the aftermath.

"He is a big game player. We saw the week before against Clermont, the weekend again, big game big moments and nothing has changed. Donners is fit. In the last 10 minutes he was excellent and fitness is always something that he drove with us.

"You can see it in him driving it with them. It's nothing that we didn't expect from Donners. He had a fine game."

Ryan left Munster on his own terms, but Beirne was a virtually unknown cast-off from the Leinster Academy when Wayne Pivac offered him what remained of his already largely spent playing budget in 2016.

It is, the Kiwi coach now says, the best money he's ever spent.

"He was delivering pizzas trying to get his rugby career going and we were probably his last-chance saloon," Pivac told The Telegraph last month. "We had pretty much put our squad together. We had one place left and not a lot of budget.

"We were looking for that rough diamond, which is exactly what he turned out to be. If you look at my career, he would have to be my best buy.

"For a second row, I have never known anybody so strong over the ball and so agile and so quick in thinking.

"He is incredibly strong in the upper body through the arms, body and chest so once he locks in over the ball he is very hard to move. Everyone gets replaced, but that one part of his game is irreplaceable."

Next season, those attributes will be at Munster's disposal.

A native of the small village of Eadestown in Co Kildare (which also produced Cork football legend Larry Tompkins), Beirne saw more action with Lansdowne than he did with Leinster as a succession of serious injuries hampered his progress and limited his opportunities.

"I was always impressed with him with the contact stuff in training," Fergus McFadden, who was a couple of years ahead of Beirne in Clongowes, said of the lock.

"I didn't see enough of him actually playing games because he was plagued with injuries, which is ironic because I think he's pretty much played every game for Scarlets in the past two years.

"People like Tadhg, it takes a lot of bravery to go to somewhere like Scarlets, and probably going there on something like a training contract, and now he's probably their most important player, so fair play to him.

"We'll have done our analysis and we certainly know the threat that he's going to bring."

Beirne has already pooped a Leinster party once in last season's Guinness PRO12 semi-final win with 14 men at the RDS and he was the Welsh side's best player on their most recent visit to Dublin during the Six Nations.

Like Munster with Ryan, they know all about their former charge but stopping him having an impact is a more difficult challenge.

If the all-Irish final is to be denied, the two Irishmen abroad will have a big say.

Irish Independent

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