Saturday 21 September 2019

Alan Quinlan: Irish lock stocks are in rude health thanks to the emergence of two all-action second-rows

Beirne is more than four years older than Ryan, and has taken the road less travelled to international recognition. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Beirne is more than four years older than Ryan, and has taken the road less travelled to international recognition. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

It's easy to forget it wasn't long ago that our lock stocks were a genuine concern following the international retirements of stalwarts such as Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan, and more recently the departure of Donnacha Ryan.

However, the emergence of two all-action second-rows, both now considered among Europe's best, has considerably strengthened Joe Schmidt's hand ahead of next year's World Cup in Japan.

They have taken very different paths to reach the Ireland squad for next month's tour to Australia but in terms of style and approach, there are a lot of similarities between James Ryan and Tadhg Beirne.

Both men have athletic capacities that defy their size, they are comfortable on the ball and supremely intelligent rugby players, a trait not always associated with forwards!

Beirne has an advantage at the breakdown - he operates as an extra back-rower and is obviously comfortable there too, evidenced by his selection at No 8 today - while Ryan is more physical and effective around the fringes, making big carries off slow ball, as locks traditionally do.

For all of the bells and whistles that both men bring to their respective sides this evening, it is important to highlight that they also tick all the necessary boxes for quality second-rows: excellent in the lineout, superb scrummagers and effective in maul attack and defence.

The first time I came up against O'Connell was in the late 1990s. We had a dominant pack at Shannon at the time, but this gangly ginger lad from Young Munster brought a relentless ferocity and inspirational work ethic that ruffled a few feathers.

Nearly 20 years later, when I first saw Ryan playing for the Ireland U-20s, the similarities were obvious - at one stage he made three tackles in no more than 60 seconds, a spindly second-row picking himself up off the floor with vigour time and again to make the next hit.

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It was obvious then that Ryan was the real deal, although the speed of his rise has certainly surprised me, but it's a measure of the young man's mental fortitude that he has been able to take such a successful season all in his lengthy stride.

Beirne is more than four years older than Ryan, and has taken the road less travelled to international recognition.

To be honest, I hadn't taken too much notice of him until I saw the Kildare man in the latter stages of the PRO12 last season - up to then it was easy to just view him as an important cog in an excellent side rather than the standard-setter that he obviously has become in west Wales.

Even in their convincing defeat at the hands of Leinster in the Champions Cup earlier this season, Beirne was outstanding. And it speaks volumes that in preparation for that fixture and this evening's game that the European champions have had an Academy player imitating the Beirne role in training.

Whether Ryan and Beirne would be an effective second-row partnership for Ireland remains to be seen, but they will certainly be going toe to toe on plenty of occasions over the next few years - Beirne remaining in the red corner, but swapping the dragon on his chest for three gold crowns and a stag.

I'm probably a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to second-row partnerships; I like the No 4 to be a bit more hard-nosed; an enforcer who gets kicks out of hitting rucks, disrupting mauls, and generally being more effective without the ball. That allows the No 5 to run the lineout, to play a bit more in the loose - making big carries.

Remember how well O'Callaghan and O'Connell complemented each other, and in a similar vein, the balance that the legendary Springbok partnership of Bakkies Botha and Victor Matfield had. A Ryan-Beirne combination may not pack the biggest punch, but the athleticism and range of skills you'd have in the engine room would be almost unrivalled.

It would take a bit of time, I suspect, to get such similar players playing effectively in unison, but it is certainly an option for Ireland down the line.

There are plenty of others who will have a say in Schmidt's plans too, of course; Devin Toner has run the Irish lineout superbly in recent years, while Iain Henderson is a world-class lock who can mix soft hands, intelligence and silky skills with the brawn required to play the traditional No 4 role.

Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux have also demonstrated their international capabilities in recent years and Jean Kleyn has really impressed me for Munster and will be Irish-qualified in time for Japan.

It is rare for the second-rows to be attracting such praise but in the cases of Ryan and Beirne it is thoroughly deserved. They go head to head again today but it surely won't be long before they are causing international sides plenty of problems in tandem. What an exciting thought that is.

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