Irrespective of how pronounced the home advantage may appear in tomorrow’s semi-final, Leinster know the Scarlets have a habit of turning conventional wisdom to dust, writes Peter Jackson
There is a striking reason why tomorrow in Dublin amounts to now-or-never for the Scarlets and the Champions’ Cup. It revolves around the galvanising presence of an Irishman who stands out in the PRO14 like Barack Obama turning up at a pro-Trump rally.
Tadhg Beirne has been head and shoulders above the rest all season long, a lock with a three-quarter’s sidestep and the ability to double up as a multi-dimensional back row forward. Those who follow the most westerly of the four Welsh regions know they will be losing their Scarlet shamrock all too soon.
Their semi-final against the triple champions and No 1 seed will either end in familiar heartbreak or leave the outsiders one match away from achieving something beyond the wit of every Welsh contender since the advent of the European Cup 23 seasons ago.
Extending their Celtic rule as PRO14 winners to conquest on a continental scale would be some way for the uncapped Irishman to take his leave of Parc y Scarlets in a manner grand enough to have the locals enshrine his name in capital letters of gold. No Irish player has ever made an exit pay like Beirne’s from Leinster to Llanelli.
He left Ireland as just another reject and returns as a colossus which makes him unique. Leinster will have good reason to be wary of the destructive force of a player whom they released from their academy without considering him worthy of making a single start.
Beirne will not need any reminders of that, nor of the fact that his previous employers restricted him to four fleeting first-team appearances as a substitute, all four, ironically enough, against Welsh opponents including the Scarlets. They like to think they saw something in the novice from Kildare that his native province missed.
Beirne and the Scarlets have been this way before, proving too much for Leinster at the RDS in the semi-finals of the PRO12 last May when the Welsh cavaliers put the favourites to the sword despite spending the majority of the match with 14 men after Steff Evans had been sent off.
Faced with having to do it again on the bigger stage at the Aviva Stadium, the Scarlets will have no fears about doing so. When they were last there, for the PRO12 final, they left the last Irish team standing, Munster, bothered and bewildered by their bewitching capacity for creating mayhem.
Nobody need advise Leo Cullen, Stuart Lancaster or anyone else in the blue corner as to the dangerous nature of their assignment. No matter how pronounced the home advantage may appear, the Scarlets have a habit of turning it to dust.
In the course of laying claim to be the supreme exponents of delivering improbable tries like rabbits out of a conjuror’s hat, Beirne has established himself as literally the largest, most dominant constant factor in the Scarlet firmament. Ireland’s refusal to acknowledge him until he returns home has given his Welsh employers carte blanche to pick him week in, week out.
While the region’s international brigade including Scotland captain John Barclay have missed hefty chunks of the season, Beirne had appeared in 25 of the Scarlets’ 26 matches before head coach Wayne Pivac chose to rest his Champions’ Cup team en masse from last week’s domestic chore in Edinburgh.
Beirne could have been forgiven for not having had a clue what awaited him upon arrival at what the locals call in all immodesty Heart and Soul Rugby Country. “It took me a while to settle in,” he says. “Moving from Dublin to Llanelli was a culture shock but it has been a special journey.”
He would never have heard of Sospan Fach, an old Welsh folk song about a little saucepan written as a nod to Llanelli’s long-gone tin industry and adopted as the club song, one elevated to battle hymn status ever since the Sospans beat the All Blacks at the old Stradey Park.
Beirne confesses to ‘miming’ along when his many Welsh-speaking team-mates belt the words out in the dressing room. It can be safely assumed that rarely since Ian Kirkpatrick’s New Zealanders were beaten 9-3 in 1972 has it been belted out with more gusto than after the Champions Cup victories over Bath, Toulon, and La Rochelle.
Leinster in Dublin, as grand a European home banker as Barcelona at the Nou Camp or Bayern Munich at the Allianz, is the ultimate test of the Scarlets’ creative juices. They have been this way before, down an often troubled road in forlorn pursuit of Europe’s golden fleece.
This will be their fourth semi-final, the previous three having ended in heartbreak, at the Madejski Stadium against Northampton in 2000, at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground against Leicester in 2002 and against the same opponent at Leicester City FC in 2007.
Nobody has felt the anguish more than one of the Scarlets’ finest warriors, the No 8 turned Sky pundit Scott Quinnell. A survivor of the first two semi-finals when his team suffered the galling experience of being counted out on each occasion by a late penalty, Quinnell believes that this will be different.
A lifelong Liverpool fan, he sees what his favourite football team did to Manchester City earlier this month as an omen for the Scarlets.
“Leinster are huge favourites but in sport there are occasions when you look at an impressive team on the up and you think: ‘It’s your time.’ The Scarlets have been on the up for a while now,’’ says Quinnell.
“They have been absolutely magnificent in the style of rugby they are always trying to play. I think their time has come. Leinster in their all-blue in Dublin is the toughest place to go in Europe right now.
“They’ve been European champions three times and with Johnny Sexton at the helm they are absolutely ruthless. We’ve just seen in football how an unfancied team in red beat a fancied one in blue.
“If it can happen in the Champions League, then it can happen in the Champions Cup. Leinster are one of the best in Europe if not the best but then they said that about Manchester City. Liverpool were underdogs and look what they did to them. So why not dream?”
Non-Irish teams winning semi-finals in Ireland can be counted on the fingers of one hand: Saracens against Munster at the Aviva Stadium in 2017 and a trio of results at the old Lansdowne Road, Wasps against Munster in 2004, Perpignan against Leinster in 2003, and Cardiff against the same opposition in 1996.
History, therefore, does nothing to ease the Himalayan scale of the climb awaiting them but the Scarlets have a specialist in moving enough earth during 80 minutes to change the landscape, a man who deals in the tricky business of reducing mountains to molehills.
They won’t have him for much longer before he joins Munster in the summer which means that no player on any football field this weekend will be more motivated than Tadhg Beirne.
Rugby Podcast: Ronan O'Gara, Donal Lenihan and Simon Lewis on the Champions Cup semi-finals. Plus travel agent Pat Dawson on the plight of the fans.
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