Finally, the pieces are falling into place for Ireland, just as their Guinness Six Nations campaign draws to a close. Yet while Grand Slam-winning flanker Dan Leavy is back in contention for Saturday’s final-round trip to undefeated Wales, question marks still remain over Tadhg Beirne’s ability to fit into the jigsaw. In an ideal world, this weekend’s visit to the Principality Stadium would be tailor-made for Munster forward Beirne, given the success he enjoyed as a freewheeling lock or blindside flanker during two seasons with Scarlets.
Another year in West Wales and the former Leinster academy player would have qualified through residency to play against the land of his birth but the lure of a green jersey tempted the Kildare man home last summer and he was capped by Joe Schmidt in Australia before he began his pre-season induction with Munster.
Performances for his new province have been more than impressive, head coach Johann van Graan giving Beirne, 27, a licence to roam that has brought out the best in a player whose footwork and skill set belies the giant frame he uses to equally good effect.
A knee injury against Exeter in Europe in mid-January, though, forced Beirne’s withdrawal from Schmidt’s initial Six Nations squad and he has since been on the fringes, playing 80 minutes of PRO14 rugby on his comeback against Ospreys on February 22 as Connacht locks Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane filled the void that weekend in Rome created by the resting of James Ryan and injury to Devin Toner, while a fit-again Iain Henderson was reintroduced on the bench.
Omission from last Sunday’s matchday squad to face France, explained by Schmidt as due to Beirne being “a bit sore”, came as Henderson started alongside James Ryan and the presence of Dillane, an impactful sub at the weekend, in yesterday’s media session was an ominous sign for Beirne’s prospects of being involved in Cardiff, despite the initial upbeat assessment from assistant coach Greg Feek.
“Tadhg Beirne, he’s looking pretty good as well. He’s got his hand up for selection while Dan Leavy is in the group as well and he’ll train with us fully. Ross Byrne has been let go for now,” Feek said during his squad update yesterday. With Josh van der Flier ruled out due to a groin injury sustained in the first half against France, Leavy appears set to leapfrog Sean O’Brien in the openside pecking order, with Feek referring to the “X-factor” he brings, although head coach Schmidt may opt to continue with the back-row trio who finished the French win, with CJ Stander at blindside, Peter O’Mahony in the seven jersey and Jack Conan at No.8.
This weekend’s high-octane game in Cardiff, though, may have come too soon for Beirne given his lack of game time plus Dillane’s recent success.
“We have to sort of deal with what’s in front of us at the moment,” Feek said, “and if (Beirne) gets through today and gets his detail right then they’ve all got their hands up.”
The “if” in that sentence was telling, as was the response in a session with daily newspapers when the scrum coach and former All Black was asked about the transition required by Beirne to translate brilliant provincial form into effective Test rugby. “It’s a lot of the horizontal stuff, the down and up stuff, that he hasn’t played for a bit,” Feek said.
“There’s that physical side of things. Getting through some work, getting through some trainings, getting through the high-intensity trainings and seeing how he comes through that. These decisions aren’t made lightly and, yes, his form has been really good. He’s been in top form when he’s played for Munster, particularly this year. He played some cracking games but we have to make sure, going back to the Sean O’Brien thing, that we feel like they’re ready.”