Wednesday 25 April 2018

'I want to wear that Irish jersey at some stage and that's what I have based my decision on'

Tadhg Beirne of Scarlets makes his way to the pitch prior to the Guinness PRO14 Round 18 match between Munster and Scarlets at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Tadhg Beirne of Scarlets makes his way to the pitch prior to the Guinness PRO14 Round 18 match between Munster and Scarlets at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Daniel Schofield

As much praise as the Irish developmental system has received for its role in delivering the country's recent grand slam, it is not infallible as the case of Tadhg Beirne shows.

Discarded by Leinster two years ago, Beirne was on the verge of quitting the game to complete a degree in real estate when his agent told him that the Scarlets were in the market for a second row who could also play blindside.

He hastily compiled what footage he could find from reserve-team games and sent off an audition tape. Acting on little more than a hunch, Scarlets coach Wayne Pivac saw something special in that tape that few others had recognised.

"He was delivering pizzas trying to get his rugby career going and we were probably his last-chance saloon," Pivac said. "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."

Bernie will return to Ireland at the end of the season to join Munster as one of the most highly prized loose forwards in Europe. It is a reputation he can further enhance on Friday night against La Rochelle in a Champions Cup quarter-final at Parc y Scarlets.

The 26-year-old may have already delivered the best individual performance of the competition against the Bath, which included an outrageous try-scoring sidestep past England full back Anthony Watson.

If a sidestepping second row is unusual, then his jackalling ability is positively freakish considering his 6ft 6in frame.

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

This is no hyperbole. With four rounds left to play, Beirne has already broken the PRO14 record for most turnovers in a season with a barely credible 36. By way of comparison, the leading tally in the Aviva Premiership, shared by three players is 16.

Beirne also heads the turnover charts in the Champions Cup. So how did Leinster miss the glean of the diamond in the rough? Successive groin and shoulder injuries did not help and curtailed Beirne's development during a period in which Leinster's academy was overflowing with talent.

"I was out for 14 months in total and that was at a vital time during my academy years," Beirne said. "Then I was playing with one shoulder for the remainder of the season so I didn't really get the opportunity to showcase my ability."

Making your debut for your boyhood club usually inspires cliches like it being a dream come true. Beirne's senior debut for Leinster was memorable, but for the wrong reasons.

His family and friends were in the stands for the PRO12 match against Cardiff Blues. He remembers the excitement building as he prepared to come on as a replacement in the final minutes.

"I was too eager, too pumped to make an impact and I came out of the line too hard and ended up in front of the ball and the ball was played inside me and they made a linebreak," Beirne said. "It didn't change anything but it lost me a bit of the coaches' trust in terms of my defensive ability."

The record books will show that Beirne made a total of four senior appearances for Leinster, although he points out, "They were four appearances but they were like four four-minute appearances." At the end of the 2015/16 season, he was told by Leinster head coach Leo Cullen that he was not being kept on.

With the depth of second rows Leinster possessed, his release was not a great surprise, but that did not lessen the crushing disappointment Beirne felt.

"When you are in there, it is a bit of a bubble and you can't see past the club, especially the one you grew up watching," Beirne said. "You have it on a pedestal as this is why I play rugby and then it is taken away."

With none of the other Irish provinces showing any interest in signing him, Beirne was resigned to concentrating on his degree until his agent called.

"I thought I might as well have one more crack at it and if it doesn't work out I can defer and come back to my masters," Beirne said. "At the time I thought my career was over, but in hindsight getting released was the best thing that happened to me. There's a lot of freedom here in terms of expressing yourself in the way you want to play, which suits me."

Whether it is coincidence or not, Beirne seems to reserve his best performances for Irish opposition like in last season's PRO12 semi-finals and final at the Aviva Stadium.

"There's an element of ‘they let me go' and maybe it does play on my mind a bit, but that's not my driving motivation," Beirne said. His decision to leave the Scarlets was a real wrench. The Scarlets offered more money, but Munster possessed something that the Scarlets could not match: the opportunity to play for Ireland.

"It still plays on my mind whether it was the right decision," Beirne said. "It was a decision I had to take to develop my career and try to achieve that international ambition. If I wanted to do that I had to go home.

"It is a difficult one to take because the Scarlets took a big gamble on me when no one wanted me. You have to remember the bigger picture and not hold any grudges.

"I want to wear that Irish jersey at some stage and that's what I have based my decision on. Before that I will do everything I can to repay the Scarlets for all they have done for me."

Telegraph.co.uk

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