Tadhg Beirne impressed on his Lions debut against Japan
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
The Lions are not short of talent in the back row to pick from. However, there is one player that has a unique skill set unlike anyone else on the tour.
That player is Tadhg Berine. The Irishman timed his run to perfection to ensure selection and made a strong start to the tour against Japan.
Warren Gatland said he views Beirne primarily as a flanker for this tour, although he could cover lock in a matchday 23 if required. The 29-year-old’s competition have started the tour in strong fashion, with Hamish Watson and Courtney Lawes impressing against the Sigma Lions. The big decision Warren Gatland has to make is on the style of No 6 he wants.
The Lions could opt for two traditional opensides, use a No 8 at blindside or go for Josh Navidi, who is more in the mould of a ‘six-and-a-half’. The selection of Beirne and Lawes at No 6 in the opening two games indicates a lock-cum-blindside to match the ballast of the Springboks is the most likely eventuality.
However, Beirne possesses a number of unique skills that could give him the edge over Lawes and even make him one of the Lions’ key performers.
A strong lineout is a must in international rugby and having a wide array of jumping options makes it far harder for the opposition to disrupt your ball. Against South Africa that is especially important.
The ‘Boks will deploy Pieter-Steph du Toit in the back row giving them three outstanding jumpers alongside whichever two locks they pick. The Lions can match this by opting for Beirne.
Against Georgia, South Africa frequently used the driving maul as an attacking weapon and having a third player in the pack with experience at lock will help the Lions disrupt the ball and also defend the maul once formed.
Beirne has had an impact for Ireland in this area, stealing two lineouts in international rugby in 2021 – the same amount as Lawes and more than any of his other back row rivals.
The key point of difference for Beirne is his work at the breakdown. He has the size and lineout ability of a lock but wins turnovers like a genuine openside. This combination of skills is truly unique as taller players tend to be easier to clear out. However, Beirne’s timing and ability to nominate which breakdowns to attack is superb – and it has been since his days at the Scarlets.
Gatland picked out the Irishman’s breakdown ability after his selection. Slowing down the Springboks ball will be vital against a side that will generate momentum through their sizeable carriers.
As in the lineout, it is important to have a balance of players with strong breakdown skills across the pack. Assuming that one of Tom Curry or Watson wins the seven jersey, the best way to get two breakdown threats on the pitch is via the other flanker, be it Beirne, playing two opensides or using Navidi at blindside.
Selecting Luke Cowan-Dickie at hooker would be another way for Gatland to expand on the breakdown threats. The Exeter Chief has a low centre of gravity and is incredibly tough to move once on the ball. However, he faces plenty of competition from Ken Owens and Jamie George to make the 23, let alone the starting side. Therefore, having a six who is a breakdown threat is likely to be beneficial to the side.
Beirne, in international rugby this year, averages 1.8 turnovers a game, more than any other back row option on this tour including the more traditional opensides. The Munsterman was arguably Ireland’s player of the Six Nations, partly due to the impact he had at the breakdown.
There is a trade off for Beirne’s breakdown work, however. He completes significantly less tackles per game than his back row team-mates on the tour. This is partly because Beirne is often lurking behind the first tackler, looking to compete for the ball.
Beirne has a high tackle completion rate (92 per cent) but the raw numbers per game are relatively low. That is something that is worth bearing in mind when assessing the whole package he brings to the table.
Beirne does not thrive carrying in the tight to the same extent as Lawes or Watson. He can fulfil a different role in the attack though.
The 29-year-old is incredibly skilful and can be used as a link player due his good hands. Beirne is also quick for a man of his size and can be deployed to good effect in the wide channels should the Lions opt to use him there. Against Japan he showed off his acceleration, cutting an intelligent line to scythe through the Japanese defence and canter under the posts. Beirne also has a strong offloading game and is prepared to use it.
Tadhg Beirne just doing Tadhg Beirne things in a Lions jersey.
The pass from Biggar was superb but man, that finish from Beirne was something else. #BILvJAP pic.twitter.com/H24mRns1be
— Three Red Kings (@threeredkings) June 27, 2021
If the Lions want the ability to play around the Springboks as well as through them, having a natural ball player in the back row like Beirne will be a useful weapon, especially when twinned with the ballast he provides.
Beirne vs Lawes? Or Beirne and Lawes?
At the start of the tour, it seemed unlikely that both could start with Maro Itoje and Alun Wyn Jones the favourites to form the second row. But the injury to the latter has changed the scenario. Lawes has played so well in the two games thus far a Test spot is already feeling inevitable.
That does not have to be at the expense of Beirne. Gatland could opt for Itoje and Lawes at lock with Beirne at six. Lawes brings plenty of defensive impact and effective ball-carrying in the tight using footwork while Beirne is a breakdown menace who thrives in wider channels. They complement each other rather nicely.
Of course, there will be competition for the second row from Iain Henderson, Jonny Hill and late call up Adam Beard. But selecting Lawes and Beirne in the same side will be a tempting option to match the size of the Springboks while allowing explosive players such as Watson, Sam Simmonds or Jack Conan to be unleashed from the bench.
Beirne is likely to return to the Lions 23 for their match on Wednesday with the gauntlet already well and truly thrown down by his back row colleagues. It is time for Beirne to show off his full range of skills in response.