Wednesday 18 September 2019

Cian Tracey: 'Versatile Beirne must make the most of his role as an explosive back-row option'


Tadhg Beirne still faces a big task to force his way on to the plane for Japan. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tadhg Beirne still faces a big task to force his way on to the plane for Japan. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

At a time when the IRFU essentially have complete control over every Ireland international, it is extremely rare to have a player come into the squad and compete for a position that he isn't a regular in with his province.

Take Joey Carbery or Andrew Conway, for example.

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Up until last year, Carbery was quite happy to fluctuate between out-half and full-back until Joe Schmidt had a quiet word in his ear about wanting to see him get more game-time in the No 10 jersey ahead of the World Cup.

That led to his move to Munster, which has already been a success for all parties, although Leinster would obviously have something to say about that.

Conway, on the other hand, is primarily seen as a winger by Schmidt and it could be argued that is why he plays the majority of his rugby out wide for Munster rather than at full-back, where many supporters believe he could be an even bigger asset.

It's all part of the joined-up thinking from the top down, which is spearheaded by the union's performance director David Nucifora.

So, when Tadhg Beirne was signed by Munster last summer, it was to plug a sizeable hole in their second-row.

Despite having played a lot of his best rugby in the back-row for the Scarlets, Beirne happily made the transition with a view to enhancing his chances of making the World Cup squad.

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After an outstanding debut season with Munster, his case was furthered even more, yet a couple of weeks before Schmidt names his final 31-man squad, Beirne finds himself in a somewhat tricky situation. The emergence of Jean Kleyn, who will start his second consecutive Test today since becoming eligible, has seen him leapfrog his Munster team-mate in the pecking order.

They are two very different players of course, but at the end of last season, the chances are that most people would have predicted that the four locks in the squad would be: James Ryan, Devin Toner, Iain Henderson and Beirne.

However, Schmidt's penchant for a powerful tighthead lock has altered that equation with Kleyn ticking a lot of his boxes as he increasingly looks likely to make the final cut.

That in turn has meant that for the second game running, Beirne has been selected as back-row cover on the bench.

The 27-year-old has been training regularly on the flank in recent weeks and although it is a position that was once second nature to him, he is now very much playing catch-up, considering pretty much all of his rugby last season came in the second-row.

If Schmidt had been eyeing Kleyn as his fourth lock, in an ideal world he presumably would have liked to have seen Beirne get more game-time in the back-row with Munster.

That is complicated by the fact that Peter O'Mahony is very much the keeper of the blindside spot and shifting him from there was never going to happen.

Despite his lack of game-time in the position, Beirne remains an outstanding threat in the loose, as he proved by winning two trademark turnovers when he came off the bench against Italy a fortnight ago.

He might lack the bulky weight for what Schmidt wants in a lock, but having a hybrid option who can seamlessly switch between the two positions as well as being an option at No 8 (where he came off the bench against Australia last year), is a very attractive proposition for the head coach when it comes to whittling down his squad.

Schmidt is not short on back-row options, however. Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock have long been trusted lieutenants and have plenty of credit in the bank and a lot more international experience than Beirne.

Both players will be sitting a lot more uncomfortably this weekend as they watch one of their main rivals getting the chance to further stake his claim.

And as O'Mahony admitted last week, he is also not exactly best pleased to see Beirne moving to the back-row.

Of the seven caps that the Kildare native will have won after today, only three have come in the engine room, so perhaps the writing has been on the wall for a while.

"I'm not saying he's not good enough to start in either of those positions, but he's nice security, having him covering all five of those back-five positions, albeit No 7 we'd probably need to mix and match somebody, but he can cover numbers 6, 8 or 5," was Schmidt's verdict at this week's Ireland team announcement.

The Kiwi will be mindful that Beirne's explosiveness and potent threat at the breakdown provides him with a very effective option, even if it is in a position that he hasn't been playing in every week with his province.

For all of that, Beirne won't need to be reminded that he still faces a big task to force his way on to the plane for Japan, but another big performance off the bench against a powerful England pack at Twickenham would go a long way to sealing the deal.

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