Wednesday 26 April 2017

'Stuart pulled me aside and said: 'You're the boss' - Leinster's Joey Carbery

How a word of advice from Lancaster set Athy’s All Black slayer Joey Carbery on the way to a successful first season

Joey Carbery is hoping to get back training with Ireland before the end of the Six Nations. Photo: Sportsfile
Joey Carbery is hoping to get back training with Ireland before the end of the Six Nations. Photo: Sportsfile
Joey Carbery in his role as Europcar brand ambassador at Clontarf RFC. Photo: INPHO
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It is around 7pm on November 7 and as he emerges into the tunnel beneath Soldier Field, Joey Carbery could be forgiven for wondering if he'd just woken up from a dream.

Just turned 21, he has joined the newly-formed, but most elite club in Irish rugby; the 23 men who have beaten the All Blacks in a Test match. He has done so on his first cap, coming on for 20 minutes with the game in the balance and managing it through.

Even better, he was born in New Zealand and grew up supporting both teams; swapping his dad's home town of Dargaville for mum's Athy aged 11. Six months ago he was playing for Clontarf in the All-Ireland League. It's fairy-tale stuff.

So, the media men in the tunnel rush towards him looking for gold. Twenty-three questions later, they leave miffed by a series of measured responses that run to an average of 20 words an answer.

The kid just didn't seem that carried away by it all. He wasn't buying the fairy tale. Three months on, he smiles at the memory.

"At the end of the day it was just another game of rugby but at the same time I don't think it had really sunk in completely either, all that had happened," he says.

"It's sinking in a bit now, but I don't think it'll ever hit me how cool and big an event it was. Aaron Cruden came up and gave me his jersey and wouldn't take mine, so I thought that was really nice of him.

"They're hanging up at home, I'll get them properly framed but at the moment it's pretty cool to just go home and take them down and have a look at every now and again."

Ringing

The moment, he says, came far sooner than he had ever imagined but when it did he had been handed the responsibility of the Leinster No 10 shirt after receiving ringing endorsements from Joe Schmidt and Graham Henry.

Despite having just one senior appearance to his name, he began the season looking around a dressing-room full of international players who needed his guidance and leadership. It was a daunting challenge.

"It was a little bit because I'd be quite naturally quiet, so at the start of the season Stuart (Lancaster) pulled me into a room and said: 'You're the boss, you have to make sure they know you're the boss'," he recalls. "He just gave me a few tips on how I can get into the heads, to start early on Monday in training by saying a few words at a team huddle afterwards and then build it up from there.

"By the time the game comes around people already know you're the boss, so you don't have to say as much; it's already implanted.

"But it's more that you have to be very dominant. Even if it's the wrong call, you just have to be dominant and give them confidence from your call. Rather than be a bit shaky or nervous or unsure. If you are, they can sense it off you - especially some of the forwards because they just like to be told what to do. It's moreso giving orders really, being dominant and confident about it."

For all that this season is exciting, rugby has always been part of him. He is the fourth Joseph Carbery in line, carrying the name his great-grandfather, grandfather and father into another generation.

That he partly grew up in south Kildare is down to Joey Sr coming to Blackrock to play some rugby when he met Athy native Amanda who would return to New Zealand with him where they married and began a family that now includes Joey, Ciara (15) and Culann (13). When their eldest son was 11, Athy came calling.

"Initially I was pretty excited," he recalls of the move. "I was thinking that this will be a cool change but it didn't really hit me until I got over here how different it was with the weather, leaving all of my friends and family. It took me the guts of a year to fully feel comfortable, even changing school with some of the teachers trying to make me learn Irish was a huge change.

"Growing up in New Zealand was cool, but I like that I've experienced two countries and I'm still only 21. It's good to have both backgrounds.

"We lived right next to the beach, so we would have gone surfing every day before and after school.

"Most weekends we'd have played rugby on a Saturday morning and our school team was our rugby team, so our mates in school were the lads you'd play with. We'd be really good friends and meet up Saturday or Sunday to hang out and play rugby.

"It was very relaxed and chilled, it's good memories of being at the beach and the warm weather. It was a huge contrast in Athy.

"In New Zealand, even the girls would play rugby with you. That was the difference, there was other sports in New Zealand - maybe cricket in the summer - but other than that rugby was the priority so when I found out not everyone played rugby and people played Gaelic instead I respected it. It opened my eyes up to other sports."

He dabbled in a bit of Gaelic football, found soccer more to his liking but when the time came to make a call at 15 there was only ever going to be one winner. His dad has been his coach the whole way up and although the killing fields of the North Midlands are more known for their conservative forward play than anything expansive, the Athy underage teams brought a brio to the table.

"Dad has been my coach all the way up, he'd have a similar eye for the game as I would because he was a No 10 and a No 15 too, so he was a running No 10 and 15," he explains.

"He tried to get our teams to spread the ball and have a go. We had the same team from U-12 to U-19s, so we were all used to playing with each other in the same way. That's where our strength was, we were able to beat teams where they were weak by playing around them. We were pretty adaptable.

"We had a few physical encounters, we didn't have the biggest of teams so teams did try to bully us a bit. The first few years we got hammered most of the time, but you learn how to beat the bigger packs when we didn't match their size.

"Especially from a No 10's perspective, it's good to learn how to manage a game on the back-foot rather than always being on the front-foot. It's two different stories or sides to the game so I think that helped a lot as well, to be able to pick off the bigger, slower guys. We had fast forwards as well who can do that."

The experience has helped him in the professional game.

"Not playing behind such a dominant pack when I was growing up helps," he says. "When things aren't going your way you have to be able to lead, manage and you can't let the game get to your head. Otherwise, you might as well throw the game.

"You've got to keep a cool head and thinking about the next play, taking the score, the time, the conditions into consideration and then play from there."

His skill-set saw him shift positions and his performances at scrum-half for Athy saw him earn a place with Leinster Youths in the No 9 shirt, but when he played at Ireland Youths and for the U-20s it was at out-half.

His performances caught the attention of Blackrock College and he spent sixth year at the prestigious school, picking up a Senior Cup medal at full-back before moving to UCD and the Leinster sub-academy.

With his rival No 10 Ross Byrne getting the minutes ahead of him, he moved to the Northside in what proved to be an inspired decision.

"Playing with Clontarf regularly really helped me develop as a No 10," he says. "I wasn't playing regularly with UCD or the Irish U-20s, so I just needed a run of games to just play and that really helped me."

A starring role in last year's Ulster Bank League win followed and so did the attention of Henry who, having spotted the youngster in training during his two-week advisory stint, is said to have turned to Leo Cullen and said: "There's your out-half for the next 10 years".

With Ian Madigan in Bordeaux, one of three young out-halves was always going to get some game-time and with Sexton rested early in the season it was Carbery who got the nod from Leo Cullen. Sexton is playing a developmental role with his three young understudies.

"He's very helpful, I think he has a bit of a soft spot for us all because he's been through it as well," Carbery says. "If you ever have a question or need to talk to him about a game, even just a simple chit-chat to pick his brains a bit he's very open to us and always offers us a bit of insight.

"With game-management and the kicking game, you can see he works himself into good positions to kick rather than being forced to kick. He kicks on his own terms. That purely comes from experience and knowledge of the game and it's helped me a lot with my tactical kicking."

Little did he know he he'd be replacing his mentor with 20 minutes remaining at Soldier Field.

Blur

"It went by so quickly and it was a bit of a blur looking back on it," he reflects. "It was such a cool experience to be over there, even the buzz on the airplane going over, I'll remember that and be so excited.

"Especially turning 21 and having my dad there, it was pretty cool. He got there on the Thursday, I'd cousins from LA over too.

"I was nervous before the game, but I was more excited than nervous. Even sitting on the bench, I didn't expect to get on. I was just so excited that I didn't see the whole event come into play. I was just focused on getting out there and doing my role.

"Afterwards I was a bit more overwhelmed about how massive the event was.

"At the time I tried not to process it too much. You are playing against some of the best players in the world, but afterwards I was a bit shocked and saying, 'Holy crap, I played against this guy or that guy'. At the time you have to just concentrate on your own game rather than what they might do."

It's worked so far and now that he is back training after surgery on his ankle, the 21-year-old can look to getting back into the blue and green jerseys. His grandfather Joe, a musician back in Auckland, has even gone on the record that the he might get to watch his grandson in a red jersey when the Lions come to town in June.

"He's very ambitious about everything," Carbery reveals with a smile. "It's good that he has such high ambitions but I just think we've got to be a bit more realistic."

The way his season has gone, you wouldn't rule anything out.

Irish Independent

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