Low profile, high class
Mike McCarthy has been a colossus for Connacht this season and, as his team-mates know too well, his World Cup prospects are not to be sniffed at
Published 22/04/2011 | 05:00
NICKNAMES abound in rugby but 'McCarthy's hanky' is one of the more unusual ones. Connacht's second-row stalwart Michael Swift is the player who bears that unlikely tag, stemming from Michael McCarthy's pre-scrum ritual of wiping his nose on his partner's shoulder before binding with the front-row.
"Every bloody scrum," says Swift. "My mother asks me why I let him do it, but it's not like I have much of a choice."
Swift will not be on hanky duty in Ravenhill tonight as Bernie Upton packs down next to him in the second-row against Ulster, with McCarthy slotting in at blindside flanker.
Out of the Challenge Cup and among the Magners League also-rans, Connacht could be said to be seeing out the season -- although a European triumph for Munster or Leinster would see Eric Elwood's men end their campaign with a bang, via the holy grail of Heineken Cup qualification.
However, although the points at stake tonight are not vital, nor in their final league encounter with Munster on May 6, good performances are crucial to squad morale after a topsy-turvy season, while there are individual incentives to play for also.
The excitement that greeted Connacht's three-year 'survival' plan last December was swiftly tempered by the departure of a quartet of players who had been nurtured and grown out west only to replant to Munster and Leinster just as they were about to truly flower.
Of course, Ian Keatley, Fionn Carr, Jamie Hagan and Sean Cronin have every right to move and do so in the belief that they will further their careers, but it has left Connacht understandably frustrated.
They have recruited well from the fringes of the other provinces to cater for the losses but, as forwards coach Dan McFarland said earlier this week, the exodus has left an impression of "starting from scratch" next season.
Which is why McCarthy's decision to re-sign for two more years (despite reputedly being the target of concerted attention from Leinster) was greeted with such enthusiasm. The 29-year-old is a central figure in Connacht and spurning the advances of 'bigger' teams in favour of game-time and the desire to push the province forward has set a template for progress.
When McCarthy was called into Ireland's Six Nations squad last January it caused something of a stir and spawned various 'Who is Mike McCarthy?' panels in the media to describe a player whose low profile has not matched his consistent effectiveness over the past few seasons.
English-born but Irish qualified, McCarthy is firmly in the running for the second-row/back-row slot in Declan Kidney's World Cup squad with McFarland convinced he should be on the plane to New Zealand, describing him as the most athletic back-five forward in the country.
He faces stiff competition for that role from the likes of Donnacha Ryan, Kevin McLaughlin and Dan Tuohy but of all the contenders, McCarthy looks to be the most comfortable in both positions and will be determined to prove as much as Connacht close out their season.
Swift, who used to share a house with his nasal tormentor, knows McCarthy as well as anyone and is convinced of his international quality.
"He is definitely good enough to play for Ireland. Mike has become a very important player for us, really consistent, and it was great to see him called up to the Ireland squad," he said.
"He joined as a back-row but has adapted to the second-row really well and you can see that by the way he runs the line-out. He was given that responsibility about a year ago and it must have been daunting for a back-row, but he takes it really seriously and it has gone really well. He is the first one in on Monday morning doing analysis.
"We don't have the biggest line-out in the world (McFarland refers to the Connacht jumpers as a 'bunch of pygmies') but 'Macker' has us well organised and the line-out is one of our strengths now -- even I catch the odd ball."
Natural athleticism and speed over the ground make up for McCarthy's comparative lack of height out of touch and, along with Cronin, he is also one of the go-to ball-carriers, taking on possession with the critical combination of depth and aggression.
However, the aspect of McCarthy's game which could most endear him to Ireland coach Kidney, and defensive guru Les Kiss, is his ability in the tackle.
"I would say he's most like Donncha O'Callaghan in terms of work-rate in defence," says McFarland. "He is brilliant at standing up attackers and slowing down ball, what they call the 'choke' tackles, just as O'Callaghan did so well against England."
There is a spikiness to McCarthy's play also. In Connacht's memorable 19-18 win over Leinster at the Sportsground a couple of season ago, McCarthy was sent off after scoring the critical try following a breathtaking length-of-pitch move.
Believing his out-half Keatley had been elbowed as a scuffle broke out during the Connacht celebrations, McCarthy went after Rocky Elsom and picked up a second yellow card for his troubles.
But McFarland does not believe discipline is an issue. "He has worked hard on that part of his game but Mike plays on the edge and that is one of his strengths. He will not stand for intimidation tactics and, whether right or wrong, he was backing up his team-mates when he went after Elsom that night."
What about off the pitch?
"Quirky, is how I would describe him," says Swift. "He is not easily embarrassed and likes to make a show of himself in public, 'Jackass' style. Mike's not much of a singer but fancies himself as a bit of a dancer, he's got the whole boy band thing going on.
"He's also done a bit of male modelling, although he denies this down to the ground. But if you drive through Castlebar there's a poster up of Mike and his girlfriend promoting weddings. He swears it's a lookalike but it's definitely him."
Modelling aside, McCarthy's profile is definitely on the rise and it would be encouraging to see his commitment to Connacht recognised at a higher level.
A dark horse for the World Cup still but, as Swift readily testifies, McCarthy's international credentials are not to be sniffed at.