Conan and Beirne step up to showcase their skills in Lions back row

IF WE HAD all picked a Lions squad – never mind a Test team – this time last year, it’s fair to say that not too many of us would have selected both Tadhg Beirne and Jack Conan to tour South Africa.

But both Irishmen made the cut on the back of outstanding form for Munster, Leinster, and Ireland, and Lions boss Warren Gatland will surely have been impressed with their impact in Saturday’s win over Japan at Murrayfield.

Conan was in the number eight shirt, while Beirne started at blindside flanker after Gatland had indicated that the Lions view him predominantly as a back row rather than a lock.

Their good performances hardly came as a huge surprise and while they both face stiff competition for a Test jersey, this was a fine start for Conan and Beirne.

Conan was the Lions’ top ball-carrier with 18, although it’s worth noting that he received three Japanese restarts to boost his total figure. The Leinster man was accurate and composed in fielding those restarts.

Conan’s job at number eight included making direct carries from set-piece platforms, as in the instance below.

Both teams successfully target the ‘seam’ in behind the lineout in this game, most notably for the Bundee Aki break preceding Josh Adam’s opening try, and Conan gets into that space here.

As they did several times in this game, the Lions play off a dummy maul set-up as Taulupe Faletau bounces out and passes to Conan, who benefits from the first two Japanese defenders off the lineout being slow to advance.

Conan also made several carries in narrow channels off scrum-half Conor Murray’s pass but, as expected, one of his roles was to hold width out in the 15-metre channel during the Lions’ phase play.

We got a fine example of this in the build-up to Beirne’s try. Below, we can see Conan back-pedaling out to the left as the Lions play from the right touchline.

As the ball is shifted from right to left via a Tadhg Furlong link pass, Robbie Henshaw offload, and Dan Biggar’s longer pass, Conan picks up the ball out in the 15-metre channel and shows his dynamism.

As the Lions play infield, Conan holds his position on the left, which frees left wing Duhan van der Merwe to roam infield.

Lions wings Adams and van der Merwe were both very active in getting off their touchlines in this game, with the work of Conan and others facilitating that as the Lions still looked to maintain width.

When the ball comes back to the left a few phases later, Conan gets another chance to show his power as he carries into Kotaro Matsushima to win the gainline two phases before Beirne scores.

The Lions attacking shape flitted between 1-3-3-1, 1-3-2-2, and 3-3-2 at different stages of the game – it will be interesting to see how this part of their game settles – but Conan’s role in phase play was generally to position himself wide on the left-hand side. 

Of course, Conan had a major defensive impact for the Lions too, helping them to four turnovers inside the opening 21 minutes of the game.

His first was a jackal turnover penalty at the breakdown. Conan is the second widest defender in the Lions’ defence as Japan look to play out of their own half – as in attack, the Leinster man is comfortable at the coal face close to the ruck or in wider channels.

Japan made several uncharacteristic passing and catching errors in this game and one of them opens the door for Conan here, as captain Michael Leitch spills Yu Tamura’s pass forward.

Conan is in the right place at the right time to jackal over Leitch and earn the penalty.

Always aware of turnover opportunities, Beirne clamps onto the jackaling Conan, anchoring him in place to complete the fourth-minute poach.

Conan was involved in another turnover just three minutes later as the Lions demonstrated their choke-tackle intent, a common theme in this game.

In the shot below, Japan have just got behind the Lions thanks to an accurate offload. Conan has folded around the corner and starts this phase close to the breakdown.

As Japan pass the ball out to their right, we can see Conan working hard on the inside, hunting across as he recognises the danger out wide.

Conan drops underneath Bundee Aki, who has started outside him in the defensive line, as he looks to cover out into the obvious space.

But there is a big error from Japan flanker Lappies Labuschagné here as he fails to pass in this blatantly obvious overlap situation.

Labuschagné instead opts to carry the ball himself as van der Merwe bites in and finds himself enveloped by the Lions’ left wing, Henshaw, and Conan – who has caught up from the inside.

The Lions’ choke-tackle intent is again immediately obvious in this three-against-one situation.

Conan pins his arms around Labuschagné from behind, wrapping in underneath the ball as Henshaw targets it and van der Merwe helps to absorb the late-arriving Japanese support.

Referee Pascal Gaüzère calls the maul and then recognises that the ball is unplayable, awarding the Lions a turnover scrum.

Less than two minutes later, Conan is integrally involved in another choke tackle turnover.

Again, his effort after the ball has passed him in the defensive line is telling, as he works hard across from the inside.

Japan get the ball into wing Matsushima’s hands but Conor Murray initates the tackle on him and Conan, having worked hard across the pitch, instantly recognises the opportunity.

Conan swoops in to target the ball, helping to lift Matsushima clean off the ground as the Lions pair deny him the chance to get a knee to the ground – therefore indicating a tackle has been made.

While Murray is cleared away from the maul by Japan fullback Ryohei Yamanaka, the ever-present Henshaw joins the contest and helps Conan to keep Matushima off the ground.

Having called a maul, Gaüzère then awards the Lions another turnover scrum as Conan and Matsushima finally come to ground.

Conan’s fourth turnover came at the breakdown in the 21st minute.

Again, he pounced following a Japanese handling error, winning the race to the breakdown.

This time, Conan gets support from fellow Ireland international Iain Henderson, who helps to support the number eight and also absorbs one of the Japan clearout attempts as Conan earns the penalty. 

The Lions kick it down the right-hand touchline and after another penalty at the lineout, they score through Henshaw.

Conan would have been frustrated to give up a breakdown penalty later in the first half when he was pinged for not releasing after his tackle as he looked for another turnover.

While Conan was busy on the turnover front, his Irish back row partner Beirne had a relatively quiet day on that front. 

The Munster man did secure one turnover for the Lions after the superb Adams tackle below, identifying that the ball was out, scooping it up, and flicking it back onto the Lions’ side.

Beirne made nine tackles for the Lions in this game – Henshaw was top of the charts with 13 – and they included a strong effort along with Henderson [11 tackles] to deny powerful replacement back row Kazuki Himeno a second try.

While Henderson gets a better grip on Himeno, Beirne’s role here is obviously crucial in preventing Himeno from getting the ball onto the ground.

Henderson shows great strength after the initial contact to roll Himeno up and away from the ground to further reduce the chances of a grounding.

Very soon after, Beirne reacted well to stop the explosive Tevita Tatafu from smashing his way over the tryline.

As Faletau dips down into the tackle, there is a clear danger that Tatafu will simply barrel straight over but Beirne targets the ball and helps to ground the Japan back row just short of the tryline. 

The Lions do give away a penalty at the ensuing breakdown through Courtney Lawes, who somehow avoids a yellow card, but manage to shut Japan out. 

Beirne missed two tackles in this game and the second of them would have been particularly frustrating for him as Tatafu powered through his inside shoulder for a linebreak.

The Kildare native was the Lions’ second busiest ball-carrier with 10. One of his roles was making carries off Murray just after Conan had received restarts.

Beirne is not the heaviest forwards in the pack but he is a reliable carrier and he did his job well in these instances, safely carrying the ball infield to give the Lions a better angle for their exit kicks.

Beirne’s big highlight was, of course, his eye-catching try. 

The 13-phase passage begins with Lions fullback Liam Williams receiving a Japan kick just inside their half, and we can see that Beirne is immediately heading to the right-hand 15-metre channel rather than chasing the ball.

As with Conan, Beirne’s high skill level and dynamism mean he is suited to playing a wide role in any team’s attacking framework.

When the Lions eventually move the ball over to the right-hand side during this passage, Beirne makes an impactful carry off Biggar.

Beirne gets back to his feet and, like Conan over on the left, holds his width out in the right-hand 15-metre channel as play shifts back to the left-hand side.

By the time of the try-scoring phase, Beirne has shifted slightly infield to be part of the Lions’ second pod of three forwards off the touchline. 

It’s an outstanding line and finish from Beirne but he benefits from the work of others around him here.

Firstly, the pass from Biggar is exceptional.

The obvious recipient of a pass here is Henderson [white below] in the middle of the three-pod of forwards.

Henderson has his hands up to receive a possible pass from Biggar in a nice piece of detail.

Meanwhile, the presence of Henshaw [yellow above] as the ‘release’ player out the back of the three-pod is crucial, as he lures Ryoto Nakamura into a misread [red above].

Nakamura reads off Beirne and out the back onto Henshaw, leaving a glaring disconnect [green above] with Amanaki Mafi on his inside in the Japanese defensive line.

Biggar wonderfully picks out the space and sends Beirne scorching through for an athletic finish.

Beirne generally passes and offloads the ball frequently on top of his carrying and he had a sharp one-handed offload during the build-up to van der Merwe’s first-half try before a much looser effort in the second half.

Yamanaka gathers the ball here and kicks ahead, requiring a big effort from Biggar and Williams to track back and prevent him from regathering to score.

Initially, it’s good identification of the opportunity from Beirne, who calls for the pass from Murray after getting his head up to assess the defence and spotting that Japan are possibly vulnerable in the shortside – where the Lions consistently attacked.

As Japan react to the threat, we can see below that Adams is calling for a kick ahead…

… but Beirne opts to attempt the offload and the ball goes to ground.

To be fair to Beirne, he does have a fair degree of kicking skill, with another example coming in this game against Japan.

Off a breakdown turnover and a pass from Kyle Sinckler that looked forward, Beirne cleverly fired a left-footed kick deep into the Japan half.

Beirne’s kick sits up just short of the Japan tryline, forcing Yamanaka to play the ball after scampering back downfield and leaving the Japanese under real pressure.

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