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RUGBYPASS+ The unlikely lads pushing for a Lions Test start

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The unlikely lads pushing for a Lions Test start By Garry Doyle

It is the enduring sound of a Lions tour, that gravelly Scottish voice, gruff in its tone, hypnotic to its audience. Jeremy Davidson was part of the congregation, eyes fixed on the rugby missionary.  “The easy bit has passed,” Jim Telfer began. “Selection for the Test team is the easy bit.”

The words struck a chord not just with Davidson and the forward pack who heard them live but the millions who have listened to them since on film and YouTube. “It is the best rugby speech ever made,” Davidson says now. “Jim was 100 per cent right, too. Getting picked was easy compared to what was up ahead.”

But that was then; a different group of players; a different set of circumstances; heck, a different century even. Even if three of that pack, Davidson, Tom Smith and Paul Wallace were tour bolters, their stories were uncomplicated. They had talent; they rose through the ranks; they met each challenge head on until the next one arrived.

By May 1997 that was getting picked for the Lions squad; come June it was for the Tests. Easy? Mapped out might be a better term, a logical progression, each story the same. But you can’t say that about Tadhg Beirne or Jack Conan. Making Warren Gatland’s squad is a doddle compared to what they’ve gone through.

Way back in 2015, Tadhg Beirne was struggling for money and also for recognition. Leinster were his employers but Beirne was still on academy wages and in a city as expensive as Dublin, that kind of income isn’t going to get you very far. As a result, he ended up doing an odd job here and there, delivering pizzas for a while before coming upon this unusual role. Vodafone were shooting a TV ad with Paul O’Connell but needed a body double. Beirne was the same height as O’Connell. He got the gig. It’d be three years before he’d get the chance to impersonate O’Connell in a Munster and Ireland shirt.

Along the way there was heartache. Leinster hadn’t worked out. “I liked training against Tadhg,” says two-times Lion, Sean O’Brien. “He mightn’t have known that at the time I liked the fact he wasn’t prepared to take a backward step. It could get spiky. You need that (attitude) and he has it. The only thing he lacked at Leinster was luck.”

Tadhg Beirne
Tadhg Beirne was given a career lifeline by Scarlets after being released by Leinster (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

Fortune would finally arrive in 2016 when Beirne was on the verge of giving up the pro game before Mike Ruddock intervened to recommend Beirne to Wayne Pivac, then in charge of Scarlets. 

“I warned Wayne not to get the wrong impression of Tadhg,” Ruddock said in 2018. “He’s not one of these young pros who’ll be knocking on your door twice a day looking for ways to improve. He won’t be visualising his role before the game. He’ll breeze in with a smile on his face. But don’t be fooled, there’s a steely desire, a real robustness and bravery in everything he does on the pitch. He has a refreshing ability to just put on the scrum-cap and switch on.”

Perhaps Pivac remembered that bit of advice when Beirne asked for a word in November 2016. At this stage he had yet to play for Scarlets – indeed Pivac’s original intention was to throw him into a Welsh Premier League game for Llanelli RFC that weekend. But Beirne had a small problem. Leinster were flying over to play Scarlets and so were his parents. He asked Pivac if he could have the weekend off from the semi-pros to watch the Leinster game with his folks. 

“Even though it didn’t happen for Jack straight away at Leinster, you could tell he was capable of going places.”

Sean O’Brien

“I’ll do better than that for you,” Pivac replied. “You’re on the bench.” Beirne got 30 minutes that day against his old club at Parc y Scarlets. He hasn’t looked back since.

Jack Conan was on the opposition team-sheet. Like Beirne he had come through Leinster’s academy ranks – just six months separate them in age; like Beirne he was a late bloomer.

He’d gone to a small school in County Wicklow – only 45 boys in each year – yet he still managed to get selected at various representative sides at underage level, before hitting a career roadblock at 20.

His mother had advised him not to place all his eggs in one basket but there was something about this game that stirred a passion. He’d get various injuries, to his knee, his ankle, his shoulder, his back, but he fought through them all. “Even though it didn’t happen for Jack straight away at Leinster, you could tell he was capable of going places,” said O’Brien.

At 22, it didn’t look that way. He’d managed just one senior appearance for Leinster. A breakthrough seemed further away than ever. The next year was better, though. He’d play in Europe and get over 1100 game-minutes across the season. But the year after that was a setback, just five starts for the province. 

Tadhg Beirne Jack Conan
Jack Conan and Tadhg Beirne depart the field after beating Italy at Soldier Field, Chicago in 2018 (Photo By Brendan Moran/Getty Images)

Progress, then obstacles – it has been the story of his career. In Irish rugby’s golden year, 2018, he played in all Leinster’s pool matches but missed out on their Champions Cup final against Racing because of injury; in the Six Nations he started against Italy, then came off the bench against Wales but made a defensive mistake that nearly cost Ireland the game. He was subsequently dropped from the squad for the grand slam win against England.

On it went. He travelled to the 2019 World Cup in Japan, came off the bench in the opening win over Scotland before an old ankle injury flared up. That was the last we saw of him for Ireland that season.

In his darkest hours, there was a time when he wondered when a break would come – Caelan Doris emerging from nowhere to take his place at Leinster and Ireland while he was recuperating from injury. “I’d a miserable old road coming back,” Conan said.

There’s no reason why Jack or Tadhg shouldn’t make it into the Test 23. All the Irish players are good enough to be in it. On a Lions tour, it isn’t about reputation; it’s about believing in yourself and taking your chance.

Sean O’Brien

He played just 320 minutes for Leinster in 2019/20 and precious little more than that this season until he got a chance off the bench against Italy in Rome. A few weeks later he was making just his third Six Nations start against England at the Aviva. “Jack was marvellous that day,” said Gatland.

Still, when it came down to it, he never expected to be picked on tour, rating his selection chances as little more than five out of 10.

“I hadn’t built up my hopes,” he said last month. “Obviously I had received the email asking if I’d travel but I genuinely didn’t think I would go, as I thought they’d only bring two No 8s.

“So I was driving when the squad was announced and wasn’t expecting my name to be called. I nearly went into convulsions when it was read out. My hands were shaking. I nearly crashed the car. It was like an out-of-body experience, a million different emotions at once — shocked, thrilled. I was screaming and roaring in the car. Then I’m trying to ring my missus but she was in work and I couldn’t get her for a while. I was on to my parents. It was surreal. Then all the messages. My phone blew up.”

O’Brien was one of those who texted. “He has such a good attitude, Jack,” says O’Brien. “There’s no reason why he or Tadhg shouldn’t make it into the Test 23. All the Irish players are good enough to be in it. On a Lions tour, it isn’t about reputation; it’s about believing in yourself and taking your chance.”

Jack Conan
Jack Conan’s performance against Exeter in the Champions Cup brought him to prominence pre-Tour (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Both men have done so, each playing four times, Beirne scoring three tries, Conan two, Beirne making four turnovers, 20 gainline breaks, seven offloads, 22 tackles; Conan posting a 100 per cent tackle ratio, carrying for 132 metres. After Saturday’s win over the Sharks, Sam Warburton, twice a Lions captain, picked Beirne in his starting XV for Saturday’s Test while the man whose opinion matters most on this issue – Warren Gatland – had this to say: “Jack Conan is playing really well; against the Sharks there was some really good footwork and some good go-forward, he was very accurate.

“I have been really, really pleased with his performances in the games he has had; there is a lot of competition between the back rowers and it is making it difficult for us coaches.”

When we flew out in 1997, no one expected me to get in the Test team ahead of Simon Shaw or Doddie Weir. But things change on a tour. Doddie got injured. I got my chance.”

Jeremy Davidson

There are two ways of interpreting those words. Is it Gatland planting a seed in people’s minds that Conan rather than the established Taulupe Faletau will get the nod? Or is he letting Conan down gently? We’ll have to wait until later in the week to find out. The bigger story, though, is how they’ve got to this point, given how Conan’s 20 Ireland caps have been spread across six years, how Beirne played just four senior games in the first five years of his professional career.

Conan’s view on this offers food for thought. A couple of years ago he changed his diet and while he sometimes still eats fish and the very occasional steak, he is three quarters of the way to being a full-time vegan. “I feel healthier; I feel like I recover better from games; I’m getting fewer soft tissue injuries. This could be all coincidental but in rugby if you get a flow to things and they’re going well for you, you try not to change them.”

Right now things could not be going any better for either man. And while their selection on Saturday – Conan’s more so than Beirne’s – would cause a bit of shock, Davidson is a reminder of someone who can emerge from nowhere to become a Lions star in South Africa. “When we flew out in 1997, no one expected me to get in the Test team ahead of Simon Shaw or Doddie Weir,” the Irishman said. “But things change on a tour. Doddie got injured. I got my chance.”

We all know what happened next, the Lions winning the series, his peers voting him player of the tour. Sometimes unlikely lads end up as heroes.

More stories from Garry Doyle

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