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Tony Ward: 'Potential of Carbery-Murray half-back axis opens up appealing vista for Reds'



Joey Carbery during Munster Rugby squad training earlier this week. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Joey Carbery during Munster Rugby squad training earlier this week. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Joey Carbery during Munster Rugby squad training earlier this week. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Johann van Graan described the opening half hour against Edinburgh in Irish Independent Park as "some of the best rugby we've played all season".

It is a measured comment, as it should be given the paucity of the Scottish side on the night. However, there were stand-out performances all over the park. Not surprisingly, it was the return of scrum-half Conor Murray and centre Chris Farrell that captured the headlines.

We'll not lose the run of ourselves but for the first time in an age I can see the possibility of the southern province putting together a backline of real consequence. If Mike Haley can fill the full-back void, and that is looking a distinct possibility, then, with Darren Sweetnam out, a back three of Haley, Andrew Conway and Keith Earls whets the appetite for what lies ahead between Champions Cup and Pro14 over the festive period.

A backline made up, from 15 to 10, of Haley; Conway, Farrell, Rory Scannell, Earls; Joey Carbery and Murray might not yet be in the Leinster league but is a unit with the potential to become just as potent. With consistency in selection allied to an injury-free run, the possibilities are enormous. Now whether Farrell and Scannell represent the optimum centre combination in terms of chemistry and balance only time will tell, although I would qualify that when saying the latter has an equally important tactical role to play. From 11 to 15 inclusive, the fit looks right and yet it is the link inside that again that is the real positive from a Munster viewpoint.

Strange as it may seem, the jury is still out on the half-back pairing for the simple reason that this will be their first start together when wearing red. But, as an advocate of Carbery's move south, this combination is very exciting.

In tactical terms, the first-choice Munster out-half remains in learning mode. He is still a distance from the game manager we all want to see but, as a work in progress, he is going in the right direction. He is not a Johnny Sexton but the reintroduction of Murray back into the Munster fold will have a significant impact on partner and team. At this point in time, Murray is the best all-round No 9 in world rugby with only Aaron Smith coming close.

If there was a half-back partnership that broke the mould when it came to linking forwards and backs, it was Gareth Edwards and Barry John in their halcyon days of the late sixties early seventies. "You throw, I'll catch" was the widely-used phrase attributed to BJ. It might sound a little flippant but it certainly wasn't intended as such.

Much is made of the link between nine and ten and rightly so given the nature of the game nowadays. Watch any underage match and you can be pretty much guaranteed that the best ball-handlers, no make that best all-round footballers, tend to fill the half-back roles.

In relation to representative fare, much is made of unit selection whether front-row or half-back. It is a proposition, particularly in relation to halves, that I don't buy. Yes, it is an advantage to play regularly alongside a half-back partner but as a criterion for selection… never.

If in time Carbery is to become Ireland's first-choice No 10, it will be on the back of outplaying the current incumbent and not because he now has the inside track playing alongside Murray on a regular basis with Munster.

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Now of course it is an advantage for halves to be playing together but I qualify that when stating that there is no magical formula to make the chemistry work. For sure there was a time when units were selected ahead of individuals but ultimately it represented lazy selection policy and lazy preparation on the basis of limited time.

Thankfully, those principles no longer apply and today's selection (with Joe Schmidt in the vanguard) is based on skill-set, personality and attitude. And not by any means in that order. Would Schmidt like to have Murray and Carbery playing regularly together? Of course he would. Might that put Sexton's place under threat? No, nor should it.

However, from a Munster perspective, we now have the potential for a different ball game entirely. I doubt Carbery will ever be a Ronan O'Gara and I urge Munster folk not to compare him as such. Playing the percentages doesn't come naturally to the Athy man. He needs practical support.

To that end, having Murray on his inside will be worth its weight in gold. The scrum-half told an interesting story at a function in his honour at Adare last Saturday whereby he confessed to being very conscious of crowd reaction at the highest level to his box-kicking.

While more confident now and probably by extension largely oblivious to crowd banter, it is no bad thing he still strives to get that balance right. To that end, he must look to get the best out of Carbery and specifically his half-back partner's strengths. Here Scannell at inside centre has an equally important role to play.

Having a left-footed kicking option at 12 widens the parameters significantly, especially when playing from right-hand touchline to left. Having such an option is rare but can definitely add another attacking string to Munster's bow.

How long will it take for Murray and Carbery to gel? No time at all is the obvious answer. Neither one ought dictate the playing relationship. "You throw, I'll catch" should have a resonance for Carbery. Every problem shared will be a problem halved but not since Peter Stringer and O'Gara in their pomp has there been a Munster pair offering such rich potential.

They represent different partnerships with different traits and different dynamics but once that initial whistle sounds the two become one. Therein lies the challenge for Murray and Carbery now but given the individual abilities it is an obstacle I expect they will overcome with ease. Castres will be working off a different agenda entirely.

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