TADHG ‘SMUSH’ BEIRNE HAS BEEN ONE OF THE STARS OF THE SEASON; CINDERELLA STUFF GIVEN HE ONCE DELIVERED PIZZAS AND WAS WITHIN AN INCH OF GIVING UP RUGBY FOR A CAREER IN ESTATE AGENCY. SO, HEREWITH – AS THE SCARLETS HEAD TO DUBLIN FOR A CHAMPIONS’ CUP SEMI FINAL SHOWDOWN WITH THE TEAM THAT ONCE SHOWED HIM THE DOOR – A FASCINATING FORTY MINUTES IN THE COMPANY OF ALANNAH’S BIG BROTHER.
The Scarlets’ card school – gin with a twist – is an education and Tadhg Beirne, usually, a D minus. In the words of legendary card sharp, Will Boyde: ‘classic smush’.
GS: ‘Classic smush?’ That doesn’t much sound like a compliment.
TB: No, well I’ve got a bit of a reputation since I’ve been here of losing a lot at cards and gambling so Cubby Boi (the irrepressible and irritating James Davis) decided to start calling me ‘Smush’ because everything I touch turns to smush.
(This is actually testimony to Beirne’s incurable honesty given that in the Scarlets’ card school, he’s the one who keeps the score in his little black book. In my house, if you keep score, you win.)
GS: So who is the best card player at the club?
TB: Emyr Phillips would back himself all right; he’d be up there. He always seems to win but that’s just pure luck I call it.
GS: And who’s the worst … present company excepted.
TB: Probably Sausage.
GS: And who’s Sausage?
TB: Wynn Jones.
GS: And why is he called Sausage?
TB: I’m not sure. It might be before my time. I think Emyr started calling him Sausage and it just stuck.
GS: Perhaps best not to delve any further into that one?
TB: Probably not.
GS: And is it good being the honorary Irishman here; do you get a lot of respect?
TB: (snorts) I get a lot of stick. I can’t open my mouth without my accent being mimicked in some way but you get used to it, I guess.
GS: And who does the best Tadhg Beirne impression?
TB: Cubby’s relentless at it. Anything I say, he’ll repeat in his attempt at an Irish accent. It’s not a very good one but he gives it a good go.
GS: So is Davies your nemesis? Is he the guy who ruins your every waking moment?
TB: No, not at all, I get on well with Cubby; he’s just a bit of a joker. He likes to wind people up; between him and Emyr, they’d be the two biggest jokers in the club.
GS: So he gets slapped a lot, does he?
TB: No. He probably should, though; he deserves it.
Time for a little Tadhg Beirne trivia. One, he shares a birthday – 8th January – with the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley and the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jung-Un. Probably best not to let Cubby Boi know that. Two, he went to the same Jesuit boarding school in County Kildare – Clongowes Wood College – as James Joyce and RyanAir CEO, Michael O’Leary; again, just about as chalk and cheese and you can get.
GS: (Mischievously) So would you say you’re more Joyce than O’Leary or more RyanAir than Ulysses?
TB: (Puzzled) I don’t really like either of them. I certainly can’t write like James Joyce. And anyway I don’t think he was there for the full six years. I think it was just the two but – obviously – they take huge pride in him and they’ve named the library after him.
GS: I’m told a couple of Kearneys went there, too.
TB: Yup, Gordon D’Arcy, Fergus McFadden. There’s been a few good rugby players come out of there, to be fair.
GS: So does that mean you’re posh Irish if you went to a Jesuit boarding school? And if you are posh Irish, how’re you going to fit in at Munster?
TB: (Defensive laughter) Well, I suppose it does have a bit of a reputation for being a posh school. There are posher schools. And it’s out in the country not in Dublin.
GS: It’s on the road to Munster, isn’t it?
TB: Yeah, it’s on the way. And most of my mates from school are Munster fans so they’d be pretty happy I’m heading that way next year.
GS: And was that school your first experience of rugby?
TB: Well, actually, I was a bit of a soccer fan and my Dad was a GAA-head so I played rugby in Naas for two months and hated it but then you kind of have to play it at Clongowes, so my love for the game was a slow process.
Dad and son are the only men in a six-strong family – three sisters and Mum, Brenda – with kid sister Alannah the glamour puss of the troupe; a model, a dancing queen and a princess of prime time TV in Ireland. Across the water, Tadhg Beirne is little more than his sister’s brother.
GS: She obviously got all the looks. Did she get all the talent as well?
TB: She just looks like me with long hair, so I’m told.
GS: She would if she had a beard.
TB: Well, she was in ‘Dancing with the Stars’ back home in Ireland. She did really well in it; kinda surprised us all with how good she was at the dancing.
GS: So do you seriously get introduced to folks over there as ‘Alannah Beirne’s brother’?
TB: Sometimes I do, yeah.
GS: And are you a protective sort of older brother? Or given she’s six foot tall and fit as a flea, can she look after herself?
TB: No, she can take care of herself I’m sure. Look, she’s a model and I’m sure she has boys chasing her all the time but she seems to be able to handle it and cope with all the pressure.
GS: Do you think you’d be a better dancer than she’d be a rugby player?
TB: Absolutely not.
GS: What’s your dancing like?
TB: Non-existent. Cannot dance. Two left feet.
GS: You should get her to teach you.
TB: I’m sure she could but she’d have to get me out of my seat first.
GS: You put some pretty nifty footwork on Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph in the Champions’ Cup game in Bath, didn’t you?
TB: (Laughs) Ah, that came out of nowhere so, look, maybe there’s a hidden talent in there yet. I don’t even think I knew where I was going to be honest. I just gambled and it came off but it’s one that’ll stick in my memory for sure.
GS: That’s not something you practice, Tadhg, that kind of footwork?
TB: Sometimes I might mess around with Steff before training but I don’t think I’ve pulled out a step like that before.
GS: And just to finish off on your uber-talented family, your Mum, Brenda, was the 1983 ‘Rose of Tralee’?
TB: That’s spot on.
GS: So, you apart, good looks run through your family?
TB: Apart from me, yes, pretty much.
GS: And your Dad, presumably, was Mister Universe or something was he?
TB: No, he just had good chat.
In a carthorse of a position, Tadhg Beirne is a throughbred performer. This season; 25 games, 1702 minutes, 7 tries, 176 carries, 11 clean breaks, 22 defenders beaten, 13 offloads, 245 tackles, 74 lineout wins and 53 – that’s right – 53 turnovers. When it comes to loitering with intent around someone else’s ruck and snaffling what doesn’t belong to him, no one in Europe comes even remotely close to his numbers. In the nicest possible way, he’s a freak.
GS: Can we talk about turnovers?
TB: We can.
GS: You’re the size of an Irish Wolfhound (he’s 6’6”) yet here you are in beagle and terrier territory and you’re turning over more ruck ball than anybody in Europe. How on earth do you do it?
TB: I don’t really know how to answer that question. Really, I don’t know. It’s just always been part of my game, something I’ve enjoyed doing since I was in schools rugby and I guess the more you do it, the better you become at it. And you know I’m in pretty good company at the Scarlets with John Barclay and Cubby Boi in terms of turnovers …
GS: Yes, but hang on, they’re five feet one so it’s easy for them to get turnovers. You’re six feet twelve or whatever you are. How do you get down there and get the ball?
TB: I can’t really answer it. It’s just timing I suppose, getting in there early.
GS: But is there a very definite technique to it?
TB: At times, yeah, the better a position you can get in the more likely you are to turn the ball over.
GS: And is the key sniffing the opportunity, picking your moment?
TB: Yes, that’s something I’ve got much better at since I’ve been here. Byron Hayward (the Scarlets’ Defence Coach) talks about it a lot; picking your opportunities, where and when to go for it. I used to waste a lot of energy going to rucks I had no chance of winning but I think this year especially, I’ve made a lot better decisions in that area.
GS: So when Cubby turns round and calls you ‘Smush’ or whatever, do you just point to the turnover chart and say, ‘hey, I’m doing your shift as well this season, boi, so wind it in a bit, will you?’
TB: (Laughing) No, well, I probably wouldn’t have nearly as many this season if he hadn’t been injured. He wasn’t on the field for the first half of the season.
GS: Yes, but when I write this up, I’ll leave out that bit.
GS: So do you work as a trio, you JB and Cubby, and do you sense the opposition are now hunting for you at rucks? That’s two questions, isn’t it, sorry about that.
TB: Probably more so now. It’s getting a little bit harder to get to rucks. I don’t know whether that’s because you’re being targeted or whether other teams are seeing how many turnovers we’re getting and they’re looking after their ball more than they normally would. But with Cubby and John, it’s just a micro-chat on the field. Certainly if Cubby gives me a quick shout that he’s going in, I leave it to him.
GS: So effectively, he gets first dibs? It’s not first come first served?
TB: For sure. As you say, he has the height so it’s a lot easier for him to get down there.
GS: He barely has to bend over.
TB: It helps.
This weekend, of course, the Scarlets head to Leinster in the Champions’ Cup, Leinster being the club who once showed Tadhg the door. In six years with his home province he made a handful of appearances off the bench; indeed his time there was better known for his part-time job of delivering pizzas rather than his full time job of playing rugby.
GS: Four appearances off the bench for Leinster, is that right? So if you added it all up, it’d be, what, twenty minutes in six years?
TB: Yeah, if I was lucky.
GS: So you genuinely spent more time delivering pizzas?
TB: Pretty much.
GS: And how did that job come about?
TB: Well, if you’re in the academy, you can always use a little extra cash. So I saw the job, went for it and managed to get it. ‘Base Pizza’, they were called. They were just across the road from the RDS; then they moved out to Stillorgan, so I was working out there for a while.
GS: Tell me, please, that there was a little uniform and there’s a picture of you in it?
TB: No, afraid not.
GS: And were you any good at delivering pizzas?
TB: Well, I had a bit of a stinker the first weekend. I went home and managed to crash my car and smash out the back window, so I missed my first shift. I had three flat tyres in the first two months and then one time I was hopping out of the car and I dropped my phone and a bin lorry ran over it.
GS: And did you deliver to anyone famous?
TB: Actually I used to deliver to some of the players; Sean Cronin, Shane Jennings a couple of times. Isaac Boss.
GS: You delivered pizza to Sean Cronin?
GS: And did the players order from ‘Base Pizza’ because they knew you’d be the one bringing it?
TB: No, they didn’t know. I just turned up and they’d be there and it’d be, ah, hello, have a quick chat and get back and get on with the next job.
GS: And did Sean Cronin tip you?
TB: (Suddenly looking a bit shifty.) Um, can’t remember.
GS: We’ll put that one down as a ‘no’ then shall we?
TB: (Loyally) No comment.
GS: And can you still look at a pizza now or are you sick of it?
TB: No, I’m not like that; pizza’s still my favourite food. Firewood pizza. You can’t beat it.
GS: Favourite topping?
TB: Oh, just simple: a bit of pepperoni.
GS: Hot? Spicy?
TB: American hot. Can’t go wrong with that.
They say that things happen for a reason, or at least that’s what my Mum reckons. But when Leinster said they wouldn’t be offering him a new contract, it’s probably fair to assume Tadhg Beirne wasn’t sitting there thinking, ‘wow, this is my big break.’
GS: Can you take me back to the Leo Cullen conversation? Is that a moment you can replay in your mind in its entirety? Do you remember what he was wearing, the colour of the wallpaper; does it stick in your head?
TB: It does and it doesn’t. I remember parts of conversations because I was in his office quite a bit towards the end trying to work out whether I was going to be kept on or not. It was back and forth because he was waiting on other people. I think they signed Ian Nagle around Christmas time, which meant less space for me. And then they decided to keep Hayden Triggs for another year and that’s when he said I ought to start looking elsewhere. And that’s obviously going to be a tough conversation because it’s your childhood club.
GS: But in hindsight was it the best thing that happened to you?
TB: Well, yeah, because I was down the pecking order. There’s so many good second rows there it’s hard to get a game, so when I look at the likes of Ross Maloney, Mick Kearney, Ian Nagle, Dev Toner – Scott Fardy’s come since – and, obviously, James Ryan; I mean people have been talking about him since he was fifteen years old.
GS: The day after he was born I think people were talking about James Ryan …
TB: And look, he hasn’t even lost a game yet, so he’s living up to expectations for sure.
GS: So on the law of averages, he’s due to lose one soon, then?
TB: Please, God; all being well, this Saturday.
GS: So going back to the Cullen Conversation, how close were you at that point to saying, ‘right, enough, time to start looking for a real job’?
TB: Well, my agent said he’d have a look around. I said I didn’t want to play Championship rugby in England, ideally I wanted to stay in Ireland and I told him I was doing a Masters in Real Estate at DIT and if nothing tickled my fancy, I was going to pack in the rugby and focus on that.
GS: And who or what persuaded you to have another go?
TB: It was a little bit of everything. The offer came up at the Scarlets (Wayne Pivac’s copper’s nose was twitching and Mike Ruddock at Lansdowne provided a glowing testimony) and my agent was advising me to take it; you know, ‘Scarlets are a great club, they play some good rugby, it could suit you, it’s a last chance, if you want to give it a go, give it a go’. I mentioned it to a few boys at Leinster and they encouraged me – John Fogarty, Girvan Dempsey and Leo Cullen – and when I sat down with my parents and had the conversation, well, my mother was on the edge as mothers are, they worry about you playing …
GS: Yes, well, estate agency’s a rough trade too, you know.
TB: So yeah, she was more looking out for my well-being but she said, look, do what you want to do and what’s right and my Dad said, yeah, give it one more crack.
GS: And now it’s all worked out and the story has a happy ending, do you think to yourself, ‘see, I always knew I could do this.’ Or have you surprised yourself?
TB: Look, I think if you want to be a professional rugby player you have to believe you can play at the top.
GS: And you never doubted that?
TB: Well, when I trained alongside a lot of the boys at Leinster I never felt I was out of my depth. But I didn’t think I’d come to Scarlets and play as much as I have and be as successful as I have been in terms of silverware. Obviously I was hoping it’d work out like this and luckily it has.
GS: And to what extent has success bred success? Does it feel as though your career has snowballed?
TB: Absolutely. It did take me a little while to settle in, I trained pretty hard until I started to get some opportunities I think the biggest one for me would have been the Toulon game (this is the pool game in Toulon in the Champions’ Cup last season) when Aaron Shingler had a baby (in fairness, he had a little help from Mrs Shingler) and I was put to six at the last minute and told to call the lineout. That was the most nervous I’ve ever been ahead of a game in my entire life. But, as you say, there is a snowball effect and since that day I think my confidence has only grown which makes me a lot more comfortable and less nervous in everything I do.
Born in Ireland, made in Wales; but there’s been one part of his Irish rugby ancestry he’s kept with him to this day.
GS: The trademark blue scrum cap; has it always been blue?
TB: No, it hasn’t. I used to wear a grey one with Lansdowne but I was always forgetting gear and the kit men were always giving me extra pairs of socks and things. So I forgot my scrum cap once and they gave me that blue one which I’m still wearing to this day. It was just lying around, no one had claimed it so they said, just keep it. So I wear it still as a bit of recognition of what that club meant to me. It’s the very same one and it’s on it’s last legs, so I might send it back to them as a souvenir to say thank you because it’s not my scrum cap at the end of the day it’s still theirs. But if I do get another one, it’ll be blue; blue scrum caps from now on.
GS: Even in Munster?
TB: Why not?
Next season of course, Tadhg swaps the red of Llanelli for the red of Munster in patriotic pursuit of the green of Ireland. It’s been as hefty a decision as he’s ever made.
GS: So is there anyone you’re going to be glad to leave behind when you leave? Cubby Boi, surely?
TB: No, I’ve got on well with everyone. I’ll be pretty sad leaving this place and I certainly won’t forget it in terms of what it’s done for me as a player and as a person
GS: So if you could stay at the Scarlets and play for Ireland would you stay here?
TB: I probably would, yeah. Why would you leave a club where you get to play week in week out, where you’re winning silverware, where you’re settled and where you get on with everyone? So it was a massive decision to leave even though the opportunity of Ireland came with it. This has been a great club to me and I’ll really miss it.
GS: Is the sacrifice you’re making here a financial one as well?
TB: Well, Scarlets did all they could to keep me …
GS: Wayne Pivac said he broke the piggybank.
TB: … Yeah, he did but we had the conversation and he understood my reasons for going despite the financial benefits of staying here. (He shrugs his shoulders) In the long run, I hope I’ll have made the right decision.
So back to this weekend and Leinster in a semi final in Dublin. Didn’t the Scarlets tick this box last year? And while we’re asking questions, why does Tadhg always seem to burn brightest against the team that showed him the door?
TB: I’ve been asked this question a lot and I give a different answer every time. I try to think it’s nothing but then I think, well, how could you not have a little bit more oomph about you when you’re playing your old club; you know, a club who decided it didn’t want you anymore. And it was the same with every Irish club; we went looking and every Irish province said they didn’t want me so I suppose that does stick in your head a little bit. I try to say it doesn’t influence my form or my way of thinking going into the game but maybe somewhere in the back of my head, it does.
GS: Sometimes these things are subconscious, I mean they’re there but you can’t even see them.
TB: Exactly. But I think given what’s in this week already, it shouldn’t be a factor.
GS: And how many tickets have you had to find?
TB: Surprisingly, not that many. I think as players we get three tickets for the game and then we were given a link to purchase more but the maximum you can buy is six. But the extended family all want to sit together because they say it won’t be the same if they’re all spread out, so the group decision is to set up shop and watch it at my Auntie’s house in Tipperary.
GS: And how many does that add up to?
TB: Twenty plus, something like that.
GS: So she’s probably rustling up baking trays of vol-au-vents as we speak?
TB: She’s probably prepping up now. No pressure.
GS: And they’ll all be cheering for the Scarlets, will they, down there in Tipperary?
TB: Yes, they’re all Scarlets’ fans. They all came over to Wales for the Toulon game recently and my uncles in particular couldn’t get over the support the Scarlets had; they still talk about it and they’ve been to Leinster games and other games and they always refer back to how much better the atmosphere’s been at the Scarlets, so we’ve converted them for now.
GS: And have you ever been to Bilbao?
GS: Very pleasant in May.
TB: Yes, well, if we play well on Saturday, maybe we’ll get to see it.