Adam Beard, all 6ft 8ins of him, stands at a crossroads on his rugby journey. The 26-year-old from Swansea is entering the ‘middle stage’ of his international career and will line-up for his 38th Test against New Zealand this afternoon.
His focus is naturally fixed on short term goals, namely going shoulder to shoulder with Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett in the battle for the skies of Cardiff at a feverish Principality Stadium but given his otherworldly size, age-profile, and prodigious potential on the back of a landmark season that saw him earn a call-up to the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa last year, you can’t help but cast your gaze beyond the here and now. Just how good can he be, and where will he plateau?
“That’s entirely up to him,” says Toby Booth, Beard’s head coach at the Ospreys. “I can’t really answer that right now. There are so many factors at play when trying to say how high someone’s ceiling can be. But he certainly doesn’t lack the drive, ambition or desire. I can say that. He wants to be the best version of himself that he can be and if he tweaks a couple of things I have no doubt he’ll get there.”
Booth cites one variable in particular. It’s a characteristic that’s harder to quantify than tackle stats or success at set-piece, but it is a crucial component for players looking to take the step up and elevate themselves from good to great.
“He’s maybe a little too nice,” Booth says in response to a question concerning Beard’s general demeanour, which is as a default is friendly and good-natured. “From a personality and teammate point of view, he’s ideal. If he has to work on anything, it’s that hard edge. Being a visible leader, which is something he wants to be, sometimes you have to be unpopular and there is growth in him in that aspect.
“He’s not a massive remonstrator but he is starting to challenge the coaches a lot more, which is good. All the best players ask a lot of questions. Challenge comes in many forms. It doesn’t have to be a shouting match, he challenges very respectfully but he still does it. Alun Wyn Jones brings that edge which is why he has been such a great role model for Adam.”
Beard has shared a dressing room with the most capped man in world rugby since he turned professional in 2014. With both his club and his country, Beard has stood in the shadow of Jones, learning from him, absorbing every nugget of information possible, all while developing a closeness that can only come from uncountable hours in someone’s orbit.
“He’s a massive influence on me and my career,” Beard says, at Wales’ training base just outside Cardiff. “Coming in as a young lad you admire his work ethic and professionalism. He’s had a tough time at various stages but he’s always maintained a certain standard. There is no better player to learn from.”
Some people are natural leaders but it is a skill and I’m developing it. It’s healthy for people to drive standards. If that comes with a bit of handbags and a bit of confrontation that’s good for the squad.
Beard has played alongside Jones for many years at club and country level, but on the international stage, he’s had to share him with the likes of Jake Ball and Cory Hill. Ultimately, he had to show patience, which he’s done, as Ball and Hill are currently plying their trade in Japan. It’s not just Jones’ work in the line-out or maul that has caught Beard’s attention. It’s the way he conducts himself to the group. How he commands respect, demands it even. How he won’t accept anything less than unwavering support. How when he speaks, the rest listen.
“That sort of leadership is a skill,” Beard says. “Some people are natural leaders but it is a skill and I’m developing it. It’s healthy for people to drive standards. If that comes with a bit of handbags and a bit of confrontation that’s good for the squad. We’re professional athletes at the end of the day and we want to get the best out of ourselves and our teammates.”
Beard admits that this is a facet of his game that needs developing, but there is some evidence to suggest that he is capable of adaptation.
Because of his size – he can look down on all his teammates – he accelerated through the junior ranks before joining the Ospreys Academy. He represented Wales at Under 18 and Under 20 levels where he was a key member in Wales Grand Slam victory in 2016.
“Wales aren’t blessed with big guys of that size,” Booth says. “Those sorts of guys tend to get fast tracked through the system but they don’t necessarily pick up the skills that are needed at the top and eventually get worked out.”
It hasn’t all been plain sailing for Beard. He had a bout of appendicitis before flying out to Japan with Wales for the World Cup and in October 2020, a decline in form resulted in him being axed from Wayne Pivac’s team. At the time it felt like a seismic moment that might have derailed an otherwise seamless canter to the pinnacle of his sport. Lesser characters would have faded away.
“It was gutting for him and he was really upset when it happened,” Booth reveals. “He came back to domestic rugby and, even though he was hurting, he promised that he’d be back in that Welsh jersey. We found some things to work on and he threw himself into it. It was brilliant to see.”
Beard’s natural ability to read a line-out was sharpened and he was given the reins to make crucial calls both on attack and defence with the Ospreys. His contribution on defence was adjusted where was encouraged to assume the role of the second tackler where his extra heft could make a difference in the collision, driving back the ball carrier. He found a new appetite for broken play, so much so that Wales’ forwards coach, Jonathan Humphreys, calls Beard, “a loosehead lock.”
It was the best I’d ever seen him play. He came back into camp shortly after that from being on the outside of the squad and immediately became a leading figure, especially in our line-out attack.
Jonathan Humphreys, Wales forwards coach
Beard saved his most impressive performance on his comeback trail for an away trip to Connacht in a 26-20 win in Galway. He made more passes than any other forward on the pitch, including a slick off-load, carried 20 metres with ball in hand and made all eight of his tackles.
“It was the best I’d ever seen him play,” Humphreys says. “He came back into camp shortly after that from being on the outside of the squad and immediately became a leading figure, especially in our line-out attack.”
He impressed again in that year’s Six Nations as Wales won their sixth Six Nations title this century. When Jones was struck down with a shoulder injury in the Lions’ 28-10 warm-up win over Japan, Beard was selected to tour South Africa, where while there were raised eyebrows outside Wales, the mild-mannered behemoth proved that he could do far more that catch a ball at the line out.
It can be difficult assessing a player’s worth at this stage of their career. Hardly a newbie, but not quite at the peak of their powers, those in a similar position to Beard occupy a space in purgatory in the rugby discourse. The jury is out. Not on their abilities (no one plays for the Lions if they don’t have something special) but on their standing in the game. Can Beard join the pantheon of great locks that includes Jones, Whitelock and Victor Matfield?
“The thing with those guys is that they had two important things going for them,” Booth explains. “Their mental approach was second to none. They were so competitive. They had a never- say-die attitude. Adam definitely has that but he also needs to find a ruthlessness to his game.
“The second thing is they had the physical capability which allowed them to stay at the top for so long. But the contact has doubled over the last five or six years. The amount of rucks we expect the players to hit now has gone through the roof. It’s the same with ball-in-play as well. So it’s very hard to stay at that level without picking up a few injuries given the hits you’re taking have practically doubled every season. Those are limiting factors.”
Beard recognises that his size is an asset and is conscious that he has to set an example on the field. “I do see that as my job,” he says. “It’s my job to bring the intensity. You’ve got to click into gear and adopt that [aggressive] personality. It’s a physical game and you want to do the best for your side and that sometimes means that you have to get into people’s ears or be a bit niggly. Some guys enjoy that more than others. I’m starting to enjoy it more. I don’t mind putting myself about on the field.”
We’ve shown we can compete with the best in the world. If you judge a team by their last game then we’re in a good place. We proved some of the doubters wrong against the world champions.
Booth has earmarked Beard as a future captain of both the Ospreys and Wales, while Humphreys already labels him as Wales’ “pack leader”. A mighty showing this Autumn, less than a year out from a World Cup Beard has said he intends to win, might see him get that leadership role he covets.
“We’ve shown we can compete with the best in the world,” Beard says, steering the conversation away from the shock defeat to Italy in this year’s Six Nations and towards his team’s efforts in South Africa this summer, where they came within a few points of securing a famous series win. “If you judge a team by their last game then we’re in a good place. We proved some of the doubters wrong against the world champions. But we don’t dwell on the past, success or failure. We’re looking to the future.”
And what does the future hold for Beard? Which way will he travel at this juncture on his journey? That depends on his sizeable frame’s ability to withstand modern rugby, and his desire to bare his teeth when it matters. The sky is the limit.
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