Dan Leavy and Tadhg Beirne were once wide-eyed pilgrims following the same path towards rugby’s Promised Land.
It’s only two seasons since the pair were academy players at Leinster and desperate to shed the yellow bibs that denoted their apprenticeship status in training by thundering into the more seasoned pros around the club’s base at UCD. Such devotion earned contrasting rewards.
Beirne made just four appearances for his home province in the 2015-16 season — one, against Cardiff Blues at the RDS, when he came off the bench at the same time as Leavy — before being cut loose to build a career somewhere else.
The Scarlets lock’s injury issues during his time in Dublin have been well-documented, so too his impact in West Wales under Wayne Pivac. Leavy doesn’t claim to have foreseen the extent of his rise, but he did always hold the Eadestown man in high regard.
“We were trying to prove ourselves and they were trying to keep us down in the academy for as long as possible. He was very unlucky with injuries in his time here. You definitely need the bit of luck too and it didn’t really fall for him here.
“Ultimately, the cream rises to the top and he’s done fantastically over there.”
Leavy knows the import of being able to limit Beirne’s impact over the ball at ruck time this weekend. That ability to “make a mess of our ball,” is backed up by his old pal’s 37 turnovers in this season’s Guinness PRO14 duties alone.
How successful this particular Irishman abroad proves to be in that regard when Leinster and Scarlets contest their Champions Cup semi-final at the Aviva Stadium this Saturday will depend in no small way on Leavy himself.
The 23-year-old gives three years, a few kilos and three inches in height to the man soon to leave the Principality for Munster, but little in the way of effectiveness and self-confidence, and particularly since his starring role during Ireland’s Grand Slam Six Nations campaign. Introduced off the bench for the injured Josh van der Flier against France in Paris, he duly claimed dibs on the seven shirt as Joe Schmidt’s side dealt with all comers.
Leavy’s appetite for the dirty work was more often than not highlighted by a black eye or other facial bruising. A man unafraid to put his head where it hurts, said James Ryan. A mere by-product of his particular trade.
“I don’t think the modelling career is going to kick off,” he said, laughing, the discolouration visible on his right eye from the quarter-final defeat of Saracens at the start of the month. “So, you know, I’ll take two black eyes to get through this game.”
Leavy’s ascension to the summit of the professional game with club and country has been far more straightforward than that of Beirne and, yet, that isn’t to say that it has been a path without its own little twists and turns.
Back row is the kind of position that lends itself to flexibility. Most players employed in the department can do a job in more than the one jersey and Leavy has been no different across his 51 appearances for Leinster.
No 8 has been an infrequent berth, and one he hasn’t settled into since the end of last season against Glasgow Warriors, but he has divided the rest of his time almost equally between blindside and openside flanker, with 20 runs as a six and 21 as a seven.
There were three other occasions when he was sprung from the bench in place of Jonathan Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Mick Kearney and slotted in almost as an auxiliary flanker, but there is a sense that such a peripatetic lifestyle wasn’t all to his benefit.
It was Leinster’s forwards coach John Fogarty who spoke earlier this season about how Leavy needed to progress from a player capable of big moments to one for whom 80-minute efforts were the new norm.
The role of openside may be key to his ability to do just that.
“I still try and play the same way, just keeping in the game as much as possible really,” he explained yesterday. “I find it a little bit more difficult to play at six, because I am away from the ball a lot longer.
“My strength is in around contact and in around the ball. I do definitely think I’m more at home playing seven, getting out and making the first tackle or hitting the first ruck, getting into the game as much as possible.”
Schmidt would appear to agree. The Ireland head coach has used Leavy nine times so far and always in the openside role. Beirne may be a job to dislodge, but Leavy is proving to be all but immoveable himself. For club and for country.
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