WHEN IT’S ANNOUNCED that a player is heading for a specialist visit, it usually signals that more bad news is on the way.
Ireland will have been hoping that Tadhg Beirne got positive feedback from his specialist consultation yesterday but his injury last weekend against France didn’t look good and Andy Farrell was downbeat post-match when asked about Beirne.
Beirne was on crutches and had a moon boot on his left leg as he left the Aviva Stadium, so clearly there were concerns.
The Munster second row suffered the injury as he worked characteristically hard across the pitch in a bid to tackle France wing Ethan Dumortier as he broke out of his 22. Beirne dove to grab Dumortier but his left foot got trapped under the falling Hugo Keenan and the pain was instant. 45 minutes in, he limped off with assistance from team doctor Ciaran Cosgrave.
It remains to be seen how long Beirne will be sidelined for but losing him would undoubtedly be a blow for Ireland as they eye a Grand Slam. The 31-year-old Kildare native has become a key figure in the Farrell era.
He is a game-changer from the second row, with his breakdown threat and ball-handling skills giving him points of difference. There had been doubts over the years about Beirne’s size as a lock but he has firmly dismissed all of them. He has proven himself against the biggest teams.
Beirne is one of the players who best embodies the relentless streak this Ireland team have, so his injury is clearly a setback.
However, recent evidence tells us that Ireland can take another injury in their stride, even as the list of those nursing ailments grows.
No Tadhg Furlong? No problem. Finlay Bealham has been excellent at tighthead prop for the past two games while Tom O’Toole had his best performance for Ireland yet off the bench last weekend.
No Jamison Gibson-Park? No issue. Conor Murray has had two impressive performances in the number nine shirt. He won’t convince those who made their minds up a long time ago, but those willing to actually examine his work on the pitch will have seen his quality against Wales and France. Craig Casey was another who had perhaps his best outing in green last weekend.
No Dan Sheehan? No worries. Rob Herring came into the team and started superbly against the French only to be forced off by Uini Atonio’s dangerous high tackle. Rónan Kelleher wouldn’t have expected to play 55 minutes on his return from a hamstring injury but he got up to the pace without delay.
No Cian Healy? No hassle. Dave Kilcoyne has returned to Test rugby with aplomb as part of Ireland’s punchy bench.
No Robbie Henshaw? No drama. Stuart McCloskey continued his superb form at number 12 last Saturday, while Bundee Aki has brought major dynamism off the bench.
No captain Johnny Sexton for the last 32 minutes of a massive Test? Surely that one caught them? No stress. Ross Byrne was all over it as he delivered another composed display in pinning the French back into their own 22 for much of the final quarter.
Ireland boss Farrell has embraced the challenges thrown up by losing players and while he will definitely have been trying to figure out why there have been a spate of soft-tissue issues in training, he will have been delighted with his squad’s response to potential disruption.
They have taken everything in their stride over the past fortnight and looked calm. Their work with Farrell and performance coach Gary Keegan behind the scenes appears to be paying off.
With Beirne now possibly being ruled out, Ireland will have to adapt again. 70-times capped Iain Henderson is as good a replacement as you could ask for with his experience, leadership, and physicality.
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As the 25-man Ireland squad retained by Farrell this week underlines, he possibly views Leinster’s Ryan Baird as the next in line following Beirne’s injury.
Along with James Ryan and Henderson, 23-year-old Baird is the only other second row in the Ireland group that will train on Thursday and Friday this week. Baird trained with Leinster yesterday but is expected to link up with Ireland on Wednesday evening.
Despite his history as a lock, Baird has been playing at blindside flanker for his province this season, impressing in the number six shirt.
He is an explosive bench option for Ireland and provides that element of versatility for the trip to Rome in two weekends’ time. There are no guarantees of course, but generally the squad retained during the fallow week is a strong indicator of who Ireland will pick for their next Six Nations game.
That said, there is the prospect of 21-year-old Leinster man Joe McCarthy going back to his province this weekend, getting game time against the Dragons in the URC, and returning to Ireland camp next week to bench for the game against Italy. Farrell is a big fan of McCarthy’s potential and gave him a debut against the Wallabies in November.
However, the 25-man group highlights that Farrell won’t be making sweeping changes to his matchday 23. Italy have earned respect and Farrell stressed on Saturday that Ireland can’t afford to take them lightly.
Baird or McCarthy could get their chance and recent evidence suggests that Ireland will get the best out of the next man up.