In a world where size matters, Trinity and Leinster lock Joe McCarthy is standing out from the crowd and is ready to make a big impact in New Zealand
HE IS a young man with an infamous name. This month in New Zealand, young Joe McCarthy could be about to make it his own.
In a world where size matters, the 21-year-old has been blessed with a most untypical frame for a young Irishman. Standing 6ft, 6ins (1.98m) and weighing in just shy of the 120kg (18st, 8lbs) magic number that coaches look for in their tighthead locks, he has all the attributes to make a big impact.
Ask anyone about him and the first thing they reference is his build.
Caelan Doris, no slouch himself at 6ft, 4ins and just shy of 17 stone, had to do a double-take when he was doing some Christmas laps of Blackrock College’s Williamstown campus a few years back and caught sight of this kid in uniform.
“He was bigger than me at the time and I remember asking who that was! That was when he first came on to my radar and he’s gotten bigger again since then,” the Ireland No 8 recalled with a smile.
Doris wasn’t the only one to miss the sleeping giant in Blackrock, largely because McCarthy was something of a late bloomer. Indeed, he lined out for the fourth team at Junior Cup level.
He made the ’Rock seniors after a late teenage growth spurt and earned a place on the Leinster sub-academy on the back of his season. He was part of the Ireland U-20 side in 2020 as they had their Grand Slam attempt curtailed by the pandemic and when rugby returned he began to make strides.
Still, his rise this season has been so sharp that he skipped from playing All-Ireland League rugby with Trinity to the Ireland squad in two months having made just four Leinster appearances.
That rapid ascent hits another remarkable milestone in New Zealand this morning with a start in the Irish second-row for the uncapped game against the Maori All Blacks.
During his time in camp, the New York-born prospect – whose younger brother Paddy is a highly-rated prop – earned rave reviews from Johnny Sexton and Andy Farrell.
“He’s been outstanding,” the Ireland captain said. “We’ve all seen him in the gym and commented on what a big man he is.
“A bit like James Ryan, he had that injury out of school and it allowed him to get into the gym and develop physically and you saw the impact James Ryan had . . . I remember watching the first game he played, I think it was against Montpellier in the European Cup, he was sort of thrown in there last minute and he was outstanding and he hasn’t looked back since.
“Each week I’m going, ‘He’s way better than he was last week’ and that takes a special kind of player to do that. He’s a real humble fella as well, really grounded. He’s got a big career ahead of him if he can keep developing like he is.”
Anyone who has watched McCarthy’s abrasive recent performances in blue would tell you there’s more to the lock than size, but as a starting point, his capacity to add and retain weight on his large frame is a real asset.
“He’s an impressive young man. He’s got big legs for a start!” Farrell said.
“I’ve been very impressed. If young lads are struggling, then obviously we go to them and help them as much as we can. But sometimes I like to sit back and see how they go about their business because it’s daunting coming into an international camp and trying to be yourself.
“Joe, he was getting around everyone, trying to get up to speed with the plays, calls, how we do things.
“He wanted to learn, he was like a sponge and he had two days of that, then we had a big session on Wednesday. He was outstanding within that session. That’s what we want to see.”
McCarthy’s Six Nations involvement emboldened the Leinster coaches.
When the business end of the Champions Cup came around, he was picked ahead of more seasoned campaigners to sit on the bench. After La Rochelle, Leo Cullen propelled him into the starting XV for the United Rugby Championship play-offs.
Things didn’t work out for the province, but in no way was that down to the young lock.
Even at Trinity, he was originally down to play for the U-20s until the club’s conditioning coach Ian Hirst, himself a former Leinster prop, alerted the senior management to the talent within the ranks.
“He came into us and played an U-20s pre-season friendly against Belvo and he got a block-down try and scored another.
“The seniors were desperate for a second-row, so I rang Hugh Maguire, the senior’s forwards coach and said, ‘You have to take a look at Joe; he’s big, athletic, he stood out a mile’.
“Hugh wasn’t sure, he thought he was too young. He rocked up to training on the Tuesday, did a few drills and Hugh said, ‘He’s starting on Saturday for the seniors’ . . . literally straight away!
“He dominated, with his carrying in possession and his power. You can see it with Leinster, they don’t have many second-rows who have what he has.
“He is the full package, he’s a great lineout operator as well. We also have Harry Sheridan who is in the Ulster academy; when you have the two of them . . . they played together against Young Munster before Christmas and they ran amok.
“His last game was against UCC after Christmas, he put pressure on their line and ran nearly the length of the pitch and popped it off . . . Not everyone can do what he does.”
Sadly for Trinity, McCarthy’s form was too good to ignore. Within two months he was in the Ireland set-up and this month he’s primed to take the next step in his career in New Zealand, starting in Hamilton this morning.
“I’ve been super-impressed with Joe, he came into camp for two days and was himself straight away.
“He adapted very quickly,” the Ireland coach said ahead of the squad’s departure.
“He added to the quality of the training sessions and, because of all that, he’s played in some big games at the end of the season.
“Although there were one or two errors (against the Bulls), I thought he was excellent.
“He offered himself constantly, he was a threat to the line, he’s got good footwork, great work-rate, good field awareness, he’s not trying to play tidy all the time – he gets off the line, he’s a menace at the breakdown.
“There’s tremendous potential there, hopefully we’ll come away with a gem at the end of this tour with Joe.”
At some point during the last few days, the IRFU’s social media team posted a video of vice-captain James Ryan chairing a game of egg roulette between his Leinster team-mates James Lowe and Joe McCarthy.