Thursday 22 August 2019

Carbery lights up bleakest November evening in some style

Imperfect ten with the desire to seek perfection has a bright future in green

Ireland’s Joey Carbery is tackled by Leone Nakarawa of Fiji. The Leinster star was later forced off with a suspected broken arm. Photo: EÓIN NOONAN/SPORTSFILE
Ireland’s Joey Carbery is tackled by Leone Nakarawa of Fiji. The Leinster star was later forced off with a suspected broken arm. Photo: EÓIN NOONAN/SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

For exactly an hour, Joey Carbery walked a tightrope separating him from pain or pleasure. He absorbed the pain; the pleasure was all ours.

(Unless you were an idiot doing a Mexican Wave and lacked an appreciative soul.)

Ultimately, he would lose his balance. For that 60 minutes, the kid with the matinee looks ("He's gorgeous!" someone swoons late in the evening), provided an appropriate reminder of how great this sport is and perhaps could still remain.

And yet just as much compelling evidence that, as much as rugby needs his technicolour dash, it may also literally have no room for it.

"He's brave," mused Schmidt later, "potentially, to a fault."

If Carbery reflected a yearning for a sepia-tinted past; one wizened sage was reminded of Phil Bennett's side-shimmy; Fiji's hulking replacement prop, Peni Ravai starkly represented the present.

Ushering his man into one final dark alley, Ravai's tremendous, legal slam ended the evening's contest between beauty and beast, bravery and caution; the Fijian replacement prop weighs some 34kg more than his quarry.


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In the end, Carbery sacrificed himself for his craft; repeatedly going out on a limb, he ended up losing the power in one after a sidestep too many.

And so the tightrope snapped. The price paid for not taking the safe option of merely walking on the footpath.

"It's an imperfect world," muses Schmidt later. Carbery, too, is wonderfully imperfect.

He made heaps of mistakes - missed tackles, missed kicks, mistaken options - but then again this was his first extended run in the pivotal position all season and a first start since the summer's travails Stateside.

He needs more time to establish himself in the cast; instead, the fact that his arm will remain in a cast for several weeks or more will curb his enthusiasm and the audience's joy.

The country needed a smile on their faces in the Aviva freezer on a November night after a soulless sporting week.

Carbery lit up the premises with his sprinkling of stardust; the try created for Darren Sweetnam a symbol of his wonderful vision, the sidesteps and then sweeping pass to the winger.

Soon, he faces up to two more Fijian giants but, like a willowy waif avoiding two knife-wielding muggers in a dark alleyway, he feints and dashes away elusively from their grasp.

Moments later, he was ignored as a receiver when the midfield behemoths crashed the ball up; Chris Farrell drops the ball and then Stuart McCloskey loses his feet; the chance is lost, sacrificed at the altar of graft over craft.

One hesitates to presume that this is a landscape that does not allow for his diminutive skills to flourish; perhaps asking Nemani Nadolo, the giant Fijian wing, for his opinion might confirm this is so but the gifted Kiwi-born player demurs.

"It's definitely not about size, it's about what's up here," he says, pointing at his noggin, "and how you use it. Guys like Damian McKenzie, Joey Carbery and people like that, that's why they're the best in the world.

"They're not the biggest guys on the rugby field but they're not afraid either. They're smart so choose when to run and when to play. They're confidence players and if they've got confidence they're unstoppable."

His sport needs these players.

"You see it over here now. I come from southern hemisphere and we play a high-tempo match and game but when you come over here, playing Leinster in a European Cup, the speed of it is up there. It's up there with playing Super Rugby. It's more speed than anything else and the skill has gone up another level."

Dave Kearney has watched his team-mate accelerate through the ranks and offers this calmness as a reasoning to why this may just be the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Carbery and the sporting public.

"He's a calm player and you can see by the way he plays, he's such a naturally gifted footballer. It's his feet; he looked comfortable.

"He always looks like he has a lot of time on the ball, which is a good sign of a 10. He's someone who keeps composed on the ball."

Unlike Fiji who, Nadolo lamented, kicked when they could have ran and ran when they should have kicked, Carbery often seemed capable of making the right decision, either punting the ball into corners or unfurling those pin-point kick passes beyond the cover.

In his position on the field, knowing when to play is just as important as knowing when not to.

"He kicked one to me in the first half," says Kearney. "I was actually trying to get the call into him during the game because I actually had quite a bit of space out there. He's good at the kicking game too."

He will have to suffer for his art, though, a bit like another ten you may have heard of who also made his big-time international breakthrough against Fiji some years ago.

"Like Johnny Sexton, he takes it to the line and yeah he got whacked a couple of times, that's what happens when you do that. When you have feet like that as well, why not?"

"He's a talented player," notes Fijian coach John McKee. "He's a good player for the future with Ireland I'd imagine."

For now, this window has slammed shut. But the door to number ten is wide open. A startling reminder of summer in an autumn international of a winter's day. Not quite yet a man for all seasons. But one rich in alluring promise.

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