He’s a standout performer for Munster and Ireland, but rugby hasn’t always been easy for Tadhg Beirne. Peter O’Reilly reports
Lions lock Tadhg Beirne on school, scales and Scarlets
Tadhg Beirne’s first encounter with rugby was not the most promising.
Aged ten or 11, his sporting heroes were Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. The only reason he found himself at Naas RFC was because the coaches at his soccer club, Rathcoole Boys, said he was too young to play on the U13s with his closest friends.
“I kicked up a bit of a fuss,” recalls Beirne, who is part of the British & Irish Lions 2021 squad. “I decided not to play soccer that year and stomped off to Naas. But I absolutely hated rugby! I didn’t get the rules. I think I slid-tackled someone at one stage. I only stayed a couple of months and went back to soccer the following season.”
But then came Clongowes. the famous Kildare boarding school. “Rugby is compulsory in the first year at Clongowes and a lot of the other boys had played previously,” he says.
“For a long while I was no good at all, on the Es or the Fs or whatever. But then the cup competitions come around and you see the banners around the school. You’re like, ‘What’s going on here?’ I remember being in awe of the guys on the senior XV.
“The night before the first round of the cup, the whole school comes together in the concourse and the captain will speak and then the whole team will walk up onto the stage and be presented with the jerseys and there is all this chanting. It’s real Ross O’Carroll-Kelly stuff. I remember thinking, ‘I wouldn’t mind a piece of this’.
“Then the next day, a day off school – again, going to the cup match is compulsory. All the noise in the stands at Donnybrook, and the first years crying when we lost to Belvo (Belvedere College). It’s incredible how much it meant at the time.”
Just like in the movies, by the time he was in his final year, Beirne was playing for the senior team. And yes, just as in the movies, they won the cup. A Clongowes team including Ed Byrne (currently of Leinster) beat a St Michael’s team featuring Dan Leavy and Luke McGrath.
This was 2010. The only obstacle to Beirne going straight into the Leinster sub-academy (a filter system for the province’s academy proper) was his weight. Or rather his lack of it. Already standing to his full 1.98m (6ft 6in) in height, he tipped the scales at a scrawny 79kg (12st 6lb).
Dave Fagan, who leads the sub-academy’s strength and conditioning programme, effectively told Beirne that he needed to load up. He had a year to hit 90 kilos. This took some doing.
“Dave is an interesting character,” Beirne says. “In the sub-academy he’d weigh me every morning at seven and if I didn’t come in at 90 kilos, I wouldn’t be allowed to train with the lads. I’d be pulling a sled up and down the pitch on my own for an hour instead. So I’d be up at 5.30 every morning to get an enormous breakfast into me before cycling down to Donnybrook.
“It got to the stage where people were coming in to watch the weigh-in, cheering when I made it to 90 or over. Then I’d be outside, around the corner and puke up my breakfast!
“I remember one morning where I was afraid I wouldn’t make weight but (academy manager) Colly McEntee was standing behind me and he put his foot on the scales to get me up to 91kg. Dave was delighted with me!”
Four appearances and 35 minutes. This is the sum total of Beirne’s Leinster career. The script of how he ended up in Scarlets is well-documented – the chance meeting with an agent, Abe Kerr, at a time when he was on the verge of chucking in pro rugby to concentrate on a degree in real estate management; the recommendation provided by Mike Ruddock, who had coached Beirne at Lansdowne in the All-Ireland League.
It wasn’t as if he made an immediate impact at Scarlets, though. In fact, there was another novelistic twist in the way he made his first-team debut, against Leinster in November 2016.
Originally selected to play for Llanelli RFC that weekend in the Welsh Premiership, he asked director of rugby Wayne Pivac if he could be excused from duty with the semi-pro team because his parents had booked to fly over and he wanted to accompany them to the Leinster game.
By chance, Beirne ended up playing 30 minutes off the bench against his old club when a player pulled out late, so Gerry and Brenda Beirne got to witness the breakthrough moment. You wonder if he’d taken a bit of a risk with his initial request for a day off work, though?
“Not with how Wayne is,” Beirne said. “He’s an easy person to chat to. He was very much an open-door coach, which was great.”
Theirs was a mutual appreciation. Midway through Beirne’s second season in Wales, Pivac made a generous offer to extend the Irishman’s contract. He also broached the subject of Beirne becoming a Welshman.
Pivac explained that Warren Gatland had enquired about the possibility of Beirne going down the residency route, as he would qualify in time for the 2019 World Cup. “It was a nice compliment but I’d already signed for Munster. I was coming home to do one thing and that was to try to play for Ireland.”
He acknowledges that spending two seasons in Wales was good for him. Scarlets had given him his opportunity. He had grown up as a person, too.
“You have to come out of your comfort zone. Initially when I came out of school, I stuck pretty close to my Clongowes friends. By nature I’m pretty quiet. Going away forced me to come out of myself a bit. It’s good for your confidence. If ever I had to move club again, I’d feel more comfortable about it.”
Wales was also where he met his fiancée, Harriet. The couple are now blissfully ensconced in Annacotty, not far from Munster’s training base in the University of Limerick.
“We are really enjoying it. We bought a house here almost two years ago and we are almost finished – just buying all the furniture, making it as homely as possible. Once the shops open up again, we’ve got just one or two more things to get. I hope!”
Paul O’Connell lives not too far away. For Beirne, this is another reminder of how dramatically his story has dipped and twisted and soared.
He remembers how star-struck he was to meet O’Connell in 2015, on a film set of all places. O’Connell was shooting an ad for the Ireland team’s official sponsors and a young second-row from Leinster’s academy had been asked along to act as the great man’s ‘stunt double’.
Beirne reminded O’Connell of it recently, just after O’Connell took over as Ireland’s forwards coach.
“I remember sitting down beside him and telling him that I was in the Leinster academy and then I’d have to go up before the cameras and make sure the angles were right before the main man went in and did the actual shoot.
“We were laughing about it recently, how that had been our first meeting. I think we had a little conversation about rugby and he just more or less said, ‘Keep at it and hopefully you’ll get your break soon’.
“He was certainly a role model then — someone playing in my position, an Irish idol. I would have grown up watching him play.
“My dad was a massive fan of his and of his leadership qualities, all that sort of stuff. I guess it was a bit surreal meeting him then. When you look back now you can kind of smile about it, doing full circle and now he’s coaching me playing for Ireland.”
You’re tempted to mention the possibility of emulating O’Connell in a Lions jersey, too. But we’ll let things take their course. It’s been a pretty interesting journey so far.
This article originally appeared in the June 2021 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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