Tadhg Beirne: British & Irish Lions forward on his reunions with Scarlets and Springboks on tour of South Africa
Every match from the British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa will be exclusively live on Sky Sports; fans who don't have Sky will be able to catch all the action via streaming service NOW TV, which offers day and month passes
By Keith Moore
Last Updated: 25/06/21 11:48am
On Saturday, Tadhg Beirne will realise his biggest ambition as a rugby player and run onto the field as a fully-fledged British & Irish Lion.
The day after, the Munster forward will board an aeroplane bound for Johannesburg ahead of the 2021 tour, returning to South Africa for the first time since representing Ireland at the Under 20 Championships nine years ago.
Playing a part in that 2012 tournament represented a fairly meteoric rise for Beirne, who as a boy named Roy Keane and Paul Scholes among his heroes rather than the Lions who had gone before him.
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"I was a massive soccer fan growing up as a kid," Beirne told Sky Sports. "I was very late to start playing rugby.
"I didn't really start playing until I was in secondary school, mainly because it was compulsory in our first year and I loved it so I kept with it."
Ireland took on the Junior Springboks in their opening game of that tournament, with fellow Lion Iain Henderson packing down alongside Beirne in the second row in a pack that also included Tadhg Furlong and Jack Conan.
"I was only laughing with Henderson the other day," Beirne recalls. "I remember sitting down beside him for the first time in Under 20s and I couldn't believe the size of his legs!
"They would have been twice the size of mine so I knew I was in for a bit of a challenge."
On the other side of the halfway line in that opening game were some of the rising stars of South African rugby; Pieter-Steph du Toit and Steven Kitshoff in the forwards, Handre Pollard providing fly-half cover on the bench.
But led by coach Mike Ruddock, Ireland ran out 23-19 winners to stun the home crowd and their team at the Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch.
The Irish were ultimately unable to kick on in the tournament, their journey ended by an England team with a couple more future Lions in their team in the form of Kyle Sinckler and Luke Cowan-Dickie, while South Africa progressed to the final where they beat New Zealand to be crowned champions.
"It was a serious experience," Beirne says. But flying out of South Africa after the tournament, would that 20-year-old have thought he would one day return as one of the best in Britain and Ireland?
"It feels so out of reach when you're that age," he says. "It's one of those things... It probably didn't cross my mind that much because it didn't feel like it was possible.
"My focus was becoming a professional rugby player."
'I had to make a living somehow'
Despite being one of the young elite in Ireland, Beirne's progress stalled on his return home. He played for League of Ireland side Lansdowne Rugby Club, who were coached by Ruddock, in the hope of fighting his way into the Leinster team.
Games for Leinster A materialised, but did not lead to opportunities for the senior side, and Beirne was forced to find other ways of making money while waiting for his break.
"I used to deliver pizzas for a good few years alongside coaching and alongside playing with Leinster, just trying to earn a little bit of extra cash," he says. "I certainly had a few jobs to keep me ticking over."
One of those one-time odd jobs was acting as Paul O'Connell's body double for an advert shoot - "I was doing a little side gig, trying to get a bit money," he says. "I had to make a living somehow!"
A similar build to the former Ireland and Lions captain, Beirne stood in shot ahead of time to make sure the lighting and framing was correct before O'Connell arrived on set to take his mark.
"That was the first time I met him and we had a little chat then," Beirne said. "Obviously now he's one of the forward coaches for Ireland, so he's been a massive help over the last few months.
"As an Irishman, everyone loves Paul O'Connell. His leadership qualities, his devotion to Ireland and the Lions - he put everything into the jersey.
"Every kid would have looked up to him growing up and I was certainly one of them.
"It's funny how we first met. It's certainly gone full circle."
'That move is one of the reasons I'm here now'
On the rugby front, Beirne had made only a handful of appearances for Leinster - "I think I had four appearances and they were all probably cameo appearances" - and had been told by the province that no contract would be forthcoming at the end of the 2015/16 season.
It was a moment that had the Kildare-born man considering his options outside the sport, before an offer came along from Wayne Pivac and the Scarlets.
Beirne had a meeting with Pivac, who asked for Beirne's blessing to solicit the opinion of a Welshman on his playing credentials ahead of a potential move to Llanelli.
"He asked if he could call Mike Ruddock," says Beirne. "I said I'm sure he'd be glad to take your call.
"That was one of the main reasons they decided to take a punt on me at the time. They trusted his opinion and went with it."
And so began a second rise in the game for Beirne, who was part of the Scarlets side that won that season's PRO12 by beating Munster in the final, and were runners-up to Leinster in the newly-created PRO14 the following season.
"If I look back at it now, I probably didn't realise at the time how important it was, but it was definitely the best move I could have done at the time and certainly one I don't regret, that's for sure," he says.
"Everything just kind of happened pretty quickly but it worked out incredibly well for me and I'm seriously grateful that I got to take that move to Scarlets.
"I loved my time there and obviously that helped kickstart my professional career.
"Getting that opportunity to play week in, week out with Scarlets really set the tone and definitely is one of the reasons why I'm here now."
'I'm looking forward to going up against them'
During his second season, Beirne was lured back to Ireland by Munster and then-head coach Rassie Erasmus, who offered him a deal starting in the summer of 2018.
However, Erasmus had left the province before Beirne arrived, taking up the position of South Africa head coach and taking the Boks to World Cup glory in Japan.
Despite the South African being in the opposition coach's box in his new role of director of rugby when the Lions take on the Springboks, Beirne says Erasmus' impact in Ireland has been lasting.
"He changed a lot in Munster," he said. "He left his mark that's for sure. Some of the lads still talk about some of the training sessions he used to do.
"His reputation precedes him. You can see that from his impact that he made the second he went back to South Africa and went on to win a World Cup."
Erasmus is not the only South African to have been involved with Munster in recent times. Beirne's provincial team-mates Damian de Allende and second rower RG Snyman have been cleared to return to their home country following a fire pit incident, and will likely feature in the Bok team for the Tests.
"I think they're just both very much looking forward to getting stuck in, and I'll be very much looking forward to going up against them," Beirne adds.
The six-foot-six forward is also excited to be reunited with his former Scarlets team-mates during the tour.
"I was texting the lads after the announcement of the selection," he says. "I'm very much looking forward to getting to tog out with them again.
"We have some great memories. To get to play with those boys again will be very enjoyable."
Beirne's impressive performances alongside those Scarlets players saw him run out for Ireland before he'd even pulled on the Munster jersey, making his debut during the 2018 summer tour of Australia
The 29-year old has now gone on to play 22 Tests for his country, and was one of the standout players in this year's Six Nations, despite Ireland's relatively poor Championship campaign.
It's a far cry from the young man who almost walked away from rugby five ago, but it's in keeping with the even younger man who wore the green of Ireland in South Africa in 2012. The similarities in his rugby rise are there, but there's one thing he wants to make sure is different this time: when he leaves South Africa he wants to do so with a trophy on board.
"That's the number one goal for sure. That's what we're here to do."