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FEATURE Why Beirne and Keenan are Farrell's most zealous disciples

Why Beirne and Keenan are Farrell's most zealous disciples
4 months ago

There was a strange occurrence between the 23rd and 27th minutes of Ireland’s Six Nations opener against France. For many of their supporters, it was almost more concerning than a first Six Nations campaign in 15 years without Johnny Sexton involved.

Paul Willemse re-entered the fray and France were back to 15 men, but Ireland were 10-0 up and had taken control of the match. Jack Crowley had a penalty, from 34 metres out and in front of the posts, to stretch the lead. He was right and wide. It was a let-off but Ireland were still in good shape. Then, on the restart, Joe McCarthy shelled a simple pass from Jamison Gibson-Park. Andrew Porter gave him a consoling pat then packed down for the resulting scrum. France got a good shove and, sensing they had the upper hand, kept the ball in there. Karl Dickson awarded a penalty, Thomas Ramos slotted it over and it was 10-3.

The oddity here was three Irish errors in a row. For a team that had won 17 of their last 18 Test matches, it is almost unheard of.

Andy Farrell
Andy Farrell oversaw a record Irish win on French soil at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome (Photo Harry Murphy/Getty Images)

Up in the coach’s box, at Stade Velodrome, Andy Farrell would have shifted uncomfortably during that pocket of time. This Ireland team are not blemish free. Mistakes happen in top-level rugby, especially against the better sides. Not compounding them is the key.

For Ireland, in Marseille, that was as loose as it got. Each time France edged back in the picture, the reigning champions regathered and quickly fashioned out a punishing response. A French player would wedge a foot back in the door, only for a man in green to shoulder-barge it closed again.

Plenty of players were key in stopping that momentum – Bundee Aki continues his impressive Test form, James Lowe made some man-and-ball tackles, and Joe McCarthy had one of those bull-horn games, announcing to the wider world what he was all about. When it comes to devout disciples of the Andy Farrell way, though, you can look no further than two men who have flourished during his reign.

During Farrell’s four-year spell as Ireland boss, Beirne has been the most consistent to a ridiculously high level. In Munster red, he is more of a breakdown menace. While he comes up with some big steals in the Test arena, Ireland use him a bit more in their attack, and in delivering quick ball.

There was a clip doing the rounds, in January, of Willie Le Roux picking parts from the best full-backs in world rugby to make a complete 15. He named the likes of Freddie Steward, Israel Dagg and Damian Willemse, but mentioned ‘the Irish full-back’ for his work-rate. Le Roux knows and respects Hugo Keenan, but the name does not always spring from the lips. It still lacks genuine fear factor. Tell that to Damian Penaud.

On two separate occasions, Keenan jumped up out of the line to make statement tackles on Penaud and Paul Boudehent. The Bordeaux winger is capable of roasting even the best defenders out there. If he gets a jump on you, it is often a whole gust of fresh air and that No.14 jersey disappearing further and further away.

After 38 minutes, with France piling pressure on for a late first-half score, the ball swept left and Ramos found Penaud, only for Keenan to find him, too, half a beat later. Penaud barely had time to think when he was engulfed in the tackle and walked four strides back where he came from. He took a driving knee from Penaud into the nether regions but was able to play on.

Tadgh Beirne
Tadhg Beirne crowned a superb all-round display in Marseille with his 10th try for his country (Photo Ramsey Cardy/Getty Images)

Then we had Tadhg Beirne. During Farrell’s four-year spell as Ireland boss, Beirne has been the most consistent to a ridiculously high level. In Munster red, he is more of a breakdown menace. While he comes up with some big steals in the Test arena, Ireland use him a bit more in their attack, and in delivering quick ball. For Ireland, it is often the threat of him lurking at the breakdown that slows opposition ball. That extra second or two for the defence to set itself is vital.

With Farrell enamoured with the prospect of McCarthy as this destructive, disrupting force, it meant James Ryan and Iain Henderson were not in the starting XV. The concern, beforehand, was that a lineout that wobbled at the World Cup could fully disintegrate.

Beirne took more of the lineout calling on himself and it worked a treat. On French throws, he was a major hindrance. He stole two lineouts – one inside the Irish 22 and the other just inside his half. He also blocked a Maxime Lucu box-kick and that passage of play almost led to Jack Crowley putting Aki away, only for Jonathan Danty to be pinged for a knock-on. Beirne contributed 12 carries (for 38 metres), seven tackles, a turnover and 24 ruck involvements. In terms of momentum stopping, he was immense – the hammer and the sickle.

Going back to that short window and the three Irish errors – a potential 13-point lead turned into a one-score game. Ireland had done well to quieten the French crowd inside a Velodrome that had been bouncing well before kick-off. When Ramos reduced the deficit, the decibel levels were rising but Ireland knew what they had to do.

Lucu kicked for touch from inside his 22 and Ireland were soon on the attack when Beirne called the lineout for himself, claimed and fed to Jamison Gibson-Park. Two positive carries from Calvin Nash and Caelan Doris and they were into the red-zone. All it took was 10 phases. Crowley called the play, held his drag-back pass to a charging Beirne an extra beat, drew Danty in and put his team-mate away.

In the pack and in the backline, the Kildare natives are mirrors for this team under Farrell – humble, committed, zealous and clued in.

Penaud’s try, just as that first-half clock went red, kept France in the fight and Paul Gabrillagues brought about that last real surge of hope, and noise, on 52 minutes. It took until just after the hour mark, when Dan Sheehan crashed over after an all too easy rolling maul.

With 10 minutes to go, 14 points down, France were into ‘run it from everywhere’ mode. It almost paid off when Penaud broke a Robbie Henshaw tackle and forced a three-on-two, over on the right wing. The winger skipped Yoram Moefana (the wiser option) and found Boudehent at full steam. Going for broke, the moment he saw Penaud give his pass some extra air, Keenan took the flanker down. France needed five seconds to recycle, the Irish defence was set and Ramos kicked possession away. Momentum halted again.

When Farrell took over from Joe Schmidt, Beirne was a utility forward for his country – filling in gaps, getting the odd start, convinced he could do more. Dubliner Keenan was 24 years old, had more success at Sevens and had only played a dozen senior games for Leinster. In the pack and in the backline, the Kildare natives are mirrors for this team under Farrell – humble, committed, zealous and clued in.

Hugo Keenan
Keenan’s wrap-up tackle on flanker Paul Boudehent was one of several interventions by the Ireland full-back (Photo Nicolas Tucat/AFP via Getty Images)

Following Ireland’s 38-17 victory, Calvin Nash spoke about how Farrell had approached him as he left a training session. “Andy said, ‘You’ve been quiet this week’. And I was like, ‘How has he spotted this?’ I had a good chat with him. He just said, ‘What are you going to do in attack? What are you going to do in defence?’ That kind of way. I had all the answers.

“So he was like, ‘There you go, there’s all the answers. Just be yourself’. To be honest, that made me feel way better.”

Farrell wants his players to be themselves and do what got them selected in the first place. The likes of Keenan and Beirne very much buy into the collective but are backed to step outside of those pre-conceived designs, in attack and defence. If they see a difference-making play, and they go at it full tilt, their coach will back them.

The winning of a game often arrives in those moments when you take the other side’s best shot, or shots, and answer back with some of your own. Each time France felt they were back in the contest, a Keenan, Lowe, Doris or Beirne would assure them this match was only swinging one way.

Comments

2 Comments
M
Mzilikazi 138 days ago

Nice article, Pat. Two great players for sure.

I can’t see a Kildare connection for Keenan ? Dublin born, schooled at Blackrock, so am interested in the Kildare link.

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