Munster out-half takes another big step by running Ireland’s attack brilliantly
When Andy Farrell decided to pick his first-choice pack for the third game running this month, he had two things in mind.
One was to maintain consistency in what is still a relatively new-look forward unit. The other was to give Joey Carbery the best possible opportunity to showcase his ability behind a strong pack.
The late injury withdrawals of Jack Conan and Iain Henderson dented those plans somewhat, yet it says a lot about the strength in depth and the adaptability Ireland are building that players of Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne’s calibre slotted in so well.
For Carbery, that meant another two Munster team-mates around him, to add to Conor Murray on his inside, which naturally added an even greater sense of familiarity.
The 26-year-old started at out-half, moved to full-back, and by the end, even filled in at scrum-half in the lead-up a Cian Healy try.
As Test match performances go, there was a lot to like about how Carbery went about his business, with 18 points from the boot adding to an accomplished all-round display.
A key feature of Ireland’s impressive wins over Japan and New Zealand was Jamison Gibson-Park’s quicksilver service, thanks to the platform laid by a dominant pack.
Perhaps the late changes initially disrupted their flow, or maybe it was down to Argentina making the breakdown scrappy; either way, Carbery wasn’t always playing off clean ball.
Murray will take his share of the blame for that as at times the scrum-half could have upped the tempo by getting the ball away quicker. As it was, this was another important step in Carbery’s journey back to his best, as he handled the pressure well by stepping into the sizeable boots of Johnny Sexton.
After two impressive cameos off the bench, including holding his nerve by kicking three penalties late on against the All Blacks, running the show from the start was a very different challenge.
By the time the clock hit 50 minutes, Carbery had put in a strong shift. And just as it looked to be over, as Harry Byrne made his way onto the pitch, Farrell sprung a welcome surprise by shifting the Munster man to full-back.
In many people’s eyes, Carbery’s best position is 15; Leinster certainly thought so, and having a natural second playmaker in the back-line enhanced Ireland’s options.
Craig Casey was introduced at the same time as Byrne, with the former Ireland U-20 stars getting a chance to build on the few minutes they got together during the summer.
Like Gibson-Park, Casey’s first instinct is to get the ball away and get his back-line moving, and his introduction with Byrne, along with Carbery’s switch to full-back, added fresh impetus in the second half.
Carbery struggled to control proceedings early on, as Argentina came flying out of the blocks.
A partially blocked-down kick when playing with penalty advantage could have flustered the Athy native, yet he stuck to the task. And as his pack got the upper hand, Carbery flourished.
For all the probing of the line, it was a thumping tackle on Matias Moroni that really caught the eye on 20 minutes. Since Carbery made his return from 13 months out with an ankle injury, his defence has been called into question, but this was a big improvement.
His commitment in putting his body on the line has never been in doubt, yet it was Carbery’s tackle technique that was most pleasing, as he followed that big shot on Moroni with another hit five minutes later.
Ireland’s main playmaker wasn’t picked for his defensive prowess, but you could see him growing in confidence as he dealt with the heavy traffic down his channel.
From there, the rest of his game thrived, as he took the ball to the line, with his kicking, from hand and the tee, outstanding throughout.
A clever first-half kick in behind the defence pinned Argentina back, and but for an extra bounce of the ball into the 22, Carbery would have secured Ireland the lineout. He repeated the trick before the break and although it was another clever kick, the clock was already in the red.
Even when Byrne came on, Carbery kept up the kicking duties, with his switch to full-back offering another string to Mike Catt’s attack.
A trademark break from the back-field on 63 minutes highlighted his ability as a full-back, as did another jinking run shortly after when he spotted a mismatch in midfield.
All the while doing so, Carbery took pressure off Byrne as a second playmaker against, what was by the end, a ragged Argentinean defence.
“It wasn’t always the plan, he has been covering 12 and 15,” Farrell explained afterwards. “I thought he was good, Obviously his place-kicking was exceptional and that keeps the scoreboard ticking over. For him to be in charge for the full week, with Johnny not being there, was a great experience for Joey. He will certainly learn a lot from that game.”
This is the kind of week that will stand to Carbery in the long run, and after finishing it off with a confident man-of-the-match display, Ireland’s out-half depth looks much stronger than it did at the start of the month.